PULLMAN – When the air horn sounds at 3 p.m. today and Washington State football coach Mike Leach gathers his team around him to begin the first of the Cougars’ spring football practices he’ll see a lot of new faces looking back at him.
Last year’s WSU football team won six games for the first time since 2006, played in a bowl game for the first time since 2003 and many of those players came back for more.
Quarterback Connor Halliday returns, as do his top seven receivers. Running back Marcus Mason returns as do defensive linemen Xavier Cooper and Kalafitoni Pole.
But behind those veteran starters lies a sea of youthful depth players that have just 15 practices to develop their skills before the Cougars start preparing for the season in August.
Tyler Bruggman and Luke Falk, a pair of redshirt freshmen, back up Halliday. Should Halliday be injured next season one of those former scout-teamers will be tasked with leading the Cougars.
“We’re still very much a developmental squad,” Leach said. “It’s good to have some faces back but they are all early in their careers and so have a long ways to improve.”
The Cougars have just 15 seniors on the roster this spring. They have 36 freshmen or redshirt freshmen, including walk-ons, with another 17 set to enroll in the fall.
Nowhere is WSU’s youth more apparent than in the defensive backfield where three second-year players are listed as starters on the spring depth chart. Taylor Taliulu, a junior, is the dean of the secondary, but sophomore Daquawn Brown is the most heralded player.
“There are plenty of jobs open (in the secondary). I think the corner position will be really competitive and I think the safety positions will too,” Leach said. “That’s the thing that will be really interesting to see is a bunch of people there haven’t played a lot so they’ll be fighting it out to see who gets more playing time.”
The Cougars should be counting on Brown to use this spring to make the leap from part-time starter as a freshman to a legitimate No. 1 cornerback capable of taking on the Pac-12’s top receivers as a sophomore.
Instead, they’re just counting on him to stay on the team. Brown’s status with the team remains unclear following a second-degree felony assault charge and Leach says the team will, “have to wait and see how everything unfolds.”
He did add, “right now it’s appearing most of what’s come out and been spewed around has been greatly embellished so.”
The rest of the defense appears mostly set, except for the weakside linebacker position where Tana Pritchard, Jeremiah Allison and Chester Su’a will compete for the starting job.
While the skill positions will see little movement, except perhaps some competition at running back, the offensive line will have an entirely new look. Starters Joe Dahl and Gunnar Eklund return, but have switched places with Eklund at left guard and Dahl at left tackle, a change made before the New Mexico Bowl.
Five underclassmen appear in the two-deeps on the offensive line and behind them are more freshmen.
That youth is a reflection of a program that is taking on the identity of its third-year coach and will continue to do so throughout the spring. Graduations and transfers have created opportunities for early playing time on the roster and how the youthful Cougars respond will determine their success in the fall.
“They’re all collectively working pretty hard,” Leach said. “And those that are looking for the easy way are quickly getting outnumbered.”