LEWISTON – As the final National Letters of Intent came humming through the fax machine back in February, Mike Leach announced that the signees comprised the best football recruiting class he’d landed as the Washington State coach.
History will have to judge that one.
With just a few exceptions, mostly defensive backs, the welcome-to-college-football experience for the new Cougars has been watching the upperclassmen go about their work, and hoping a rep will fall their way later on.
The freshmen are participating in drills, of course, usually separate from the presumptive starters, their backups, and their backups’ backups.
“Later in camp I think they might throw some of us freshmen in there and see how we do,” first-year quarterback Peyton Bender said. “But they haven’t really told me specifically what reps I’m going to get so I think they just want me to learn as much as I can from Connor (Halliday) and Luke (Falk) right now.”
Ostensibly, it’s a good thing that few of these freshmen have a chance to see the field. In Leach’s first season 17 freshmen played, a youth movement that led to experience, but not wins, as the Cougars went 3-9.
Last year the team cut the number of first-year players who played drastically, and doubled its wins while redshirting all but five freshmen.
It should be a similar number this year. Wide receiver Calvin Green and cornerback Marcellus Pippins appear likely to play, but even they aren’t complete greenhorns. Both players arrived on campus last spring to participate in WSU’s spring practices and got a head start on the rest of their class.
There are physical adjustments for the freshmen, mental adjustments for the freshmen and even a “pinch me” feeling from playing on the big stage that needs to settle in.
“It’s cool throwing to all the guys like Vince (Mayle) over here because I watched him play on TV last year,” Bender acknowledged. “I’m out here throwing to him in practice now so it’s definitely cool.”
It’s likely that a couple more redshirts will be burned in the secondary, where WSU’s depth isn’t yet at a point that the Cougars can allow talented players to grow accustomed to college before contributing.
Pippins, Pat Porter and Kevin Griffin are seeing time at cornerback and Sulaiman Hameed is getting looks at both safety positions. Hameed has impressed teammates with his willingness to play physically with his older, more experienced peers, but they have all had some rookie moments trying to stop WSU’s talented receivers from making big plays.
Porter may be the most gifted of the group but during his first extended test against the Air Raid he was repeatedly beaten deep by far more polished receivers than any he likely faced in high school.
“They’re struggling right now,” Halliday said. “They’ve having a tough time out here and they have to get better because we need their help. Yeah, they need to start playing better.”
Fortunately for the Cougars, the readiness hourglass holds a lot more sand for the rest of the freshmen.
A guy like Chandler Leniu, a highly-recruited high school player who is already the heaviest linebacker on the team, almost certainly would have been conscripted into duty immediately if he’d signed two years ago. He still may play, but likely primarily on special teams, and if he does it won’t be because he was simply the only viable option.
Another benefit to easing the young guys into practice is to let them adjust to no longer being the most dominant athlete on the field. The game is a little different when a player loses his massive physical advantage, and some preparation time is welcome.
“This is a much higher intensity from high school to college,” Leniu said. “At this level guys are NFL draft, top prospects right now so I have to get ready to compete with them.”
“It’s just a little faster,” Hameed added. “Other than that I’m adjusting well to how the receivers are running their routes and just learning the defense. I think that’s the biggest thing, just learning the plays and getting it down.”