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From the start of Washington State's practice on Tuesday, everything seemed just a little off. The weather, for one, kept fluctuating between sunny with blue skies and snow flurries as overcast skies blotted out the sun.
Plenty of normally consistent players on the offensive side of the ball all had their worst practice on the same day, and the result was plenty of up-downs, a few extra rounds in the make-them-miss drill and some work after practice for the receivers.
It wasn't all bad, though. When the offense has a rough day, the defense necessarily has a good one and many of the offense's struggles were a result of a great pass-rush. The linebackers and defensive backs made some good plays as well. I'll tell you all about it in our practice report below.
— There were some limited players today. Specifically, Brett Bartolone, River Cracraft, Nick Begg, Jamal Morrow, Andre Dillard, Nate DeRider, Sulaiman Hameed and Drew Griffin were in yellow. I didn't actually see Robert Barber or Frankie Luvu at practice, but since they've each been limited for awhile I expect they were probably just getting treatment or working out somewhere else.
Cracraft stayed long after practice playing catch with Luke Falk.
— Did you notice who I didn't list? Ngalu Tapa is back fully participating and spent the entirety of practice running with the twos. He looked OK for a big guy who has been sitting out most of spring and I expect him to compete for playing time. Running back Jamal Morrow is also no longer being held out.
Another player that saw some time with the second unit was David Bucannon, who has had a solid spring at safety. Bucannon has been one of the team's biggest hitters since I started covering the Cougars early in the 2013 season, but has been buried on the depth chart. But it looks like he's improved his ability to move laterally and has taken advantage of the clean slate and impressed his new defensive coaches enough to get a shot in the two-deep.
The starting defense remained the same with the exception of Taylor Taliulu filling in for Hameed.
— The Cougars worked out some more with the under center formation today and are attacking all parts of the field now: sweeps, dives, vertical passes, etc.
— Outside linebackers coach Roy Manning seems very hands-on and technique oriented. He spent about five minutes today working one-on-one with Ivan McLennan on his backpedal and then another 15 minutes working with the Rush linebacker on rushing the quarterback and getting past various types of blocking techniques.
— During the skeleton drill Falk completed his first eight passes and finished 19 of 24 and found Gerard Wicks on a wheel route for a touchdown. Two of the missed passes were drops by Keith Harrington, who really struggled on Tuesday after playing very well in Saturday's scrimmage. Of course, I should note that at least three of Falk's completions traveled less than five yards and so were scored as defensive stops.
Peyton Bender completed his first two passes, then threw one over the middle that linebacker Peyton Pelluer picked off, fully extending toward the ball while keeping his feet in a nice display of athleticism. Bender recovered throwing a touchdown to D.J. Thompson – a walk-on who's had a good spring – and had a score over the middle to Tyler Baker that I'm almost reluctant to count because good gawd it was wide open. Bender finished skeleton 12 of 18 by my count.
— Bender definitely had the better team period of the two quarterbacks, however. He's got a quicker release than Falk does and was better able to manage the heavy pass rush. He's also been nails in the red zone lately, somehow seemingly becoming more accurate when the spaces get tighter.
The period didn't begin well, however, for Bender, who was sacked on the first play by Ivan McLennan, I believe. His second pass was a short screen that went nowhere and then Harrington was stuffed on the next play. He completed a couple more short ones, then outdid a ferocious rush by getting the ball out of his hands on a pass to Dom Williams so quickly he looked like a shortstop making the exchange on throw to first base. Williams caught the ball with no defenders around – they were all trying to sack Bender – and got a nice gain out of it. Bender was good the rest of the period except for a pair of pass breakups by Darius Lemora and Pelluer. Once the offense got close to the red zone he threw four touchdowns, two each to Baker and John Thompson.
Falk's third pass was a touchdown to Dom Williams, but the receiver did all the work, juking a couple defenders and finding a seam to race 70-yards downfield. On the next play, Kache Palacio and Hercules Mata'afa combined to sack Falk, whose next pass was broken up by Deion Singleton. The period ended poorly for Falk, who threw a pass that was batted by a receiver and then intercepted by Brendan Hay, was sacked on three consecutive plays by Destiny Vaeao, then Jeremiah Allison, then Darryl Paulo. On the last sack he got the pass off, anyway, and it was picked off by Charleston White.
— The Cougars often end practice with a "make-you-miss" drill, in which an offensive player and a defensive player stand about 10 yards apart with their backs facing each other. On a whistle the players turn and the offensive player has to get by the defensive player with about five yards in which to move laterally.
Unhappy with the play of the offense, Mike Leach demanded that each receiver and running back go through the drill three times, much more than usual. It's a physical drill and tempers between the offense and defense flared more than once.
The passing game and pass rush were dominant on Saturday and one running back had an auspicious debut for the fans.
Washington State's secondary still looks a work in progress and the offensive linemen are probably ready for a do-over. But overall, with the exception of one inauspicious drive, the Cougars were energetic and it looked like a productive first scrimmage.
The final stats from the scrimmage are available here, and my observations are below.
— The scrimmage afforded an opportunity to clarify some positions that had seen some movement throughout the spring. The starting outside receivers were Gabe Marks and Dom Williams, as expected, with Calvin Green and Daniel Lilienthal backing them up. At inside receiver D.J. and John Thompson backed up starters Robert Lewis and Tyler Baker.
Hercules Mata'afa and Jeremiah Mitchell were the second unit defensive ends, although defensive coordinator Alex Grinch told me after practice that he's been very impressed with Reggie Coates at that spot and that the Nevada transfer is still in the mix. Reading between the lines, I wouldn't be surprised if Coates sees the field more against pass-heavy teams while Mata'afa is the backup when the Cougars are expecting run.
For now, it looks like the third string offensive line, from left to right, is Brandon Evers, Sean Krepsz, Carlos Freeman, Mack Hopkins and B.J. Salmonson.
Of course, that could all be different on Tuesdsay, depending on how those players graded out in the scrimmage.
— Oops, I forgot to list the limited players first. That's OK. The men in yellow today were Brett Bartolone, Nick Begg, Nate DeRider, Reece Alvardo, Drew Griffin, Sulaiman Hameed, Jamal Morrow and Frankie Luvu.
— Peyton Bender took the first series, which was second-string offense against second-string defense, and was nearly perfect. He completed his first five passes and finished 7-8, capping the drive with a four-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Green.
The freshman was just as sharp in his second series, this time leading the first team offense against the starting defense. In that series Bender went 6 of 7 with a pass broken up by Charleston White and an 18-yard touchdown to Dom Williams, who made the catch over Marcellus Pippins. Bender was also sacked by Darryl Paulo on the play prior to the touchdown.
— Luke Falk led a nice opening drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Baker and was overall very sharp on the day. He even called his own number on the first driveBut he was a little frustrated afterwards due quarterbacking to the offense's most lethargic, one that led to some extra exercise for the first team. The drive began with a17-yard scamper by Keith Harrington (more on him later) and also included a 12-yard run by Gerard Wicks. But Leach had a word with the offense after Falk was sacked by Peyton Pelluer, Wicks lost a yard and Falk threw an incomplete pass. Following the heart-to-heart, Falk found Dom Williams for 13-yards but was sacked by Daniel Ekuale and threw a pass to Gabe Marks that was batted by Charleston White and intercepted by Taylor Taliulu. I'll let Leach tell you what happened next:
"I issued a 'We didn't have great effort the first five plays so we'll do 30 up-downs,' and I didn't think we had great effort doing the 30 so I upped the ante to 40 and after that we played hard and played together."
— The secondary is still learning a new defense, and they'll get better, but the defensive coaches were frustrated by how open the receivers were getting throughout the scrimmage. While Bender had a very good day throwing the ball, he left a couple touchdowns on the field by not seeing that Wicks or another receiver had found an opening with nobody near him.
— Freshman quarterback Tyler Hilinksi had kind of a rough start, taking three consecutive sacks, including a fumble forced by Ivan McLennan and recovered by Jeremiah Mitchell, to end his opening drive. But once he got used to the speed of the game, he settled in nicely, and only missed three passes in 19 attempts.
— Running back Keith Harrington and wide receiver Daniel Lilienthal each had impressive days on offense. Leach said afterwards that if Harrington keeps playing like he is, he might contend for a starting spot. Wicks looked pretty good, too, but Harrington's quickness and vision were on full display Saturday. He had 85 yards on just six carries, including long scampers of 32 and 27 yards, while also adding 53 yards on four receptions. His most impressive play still might have been his seven-yard touchdown, in which he appeared to hit one hole at full speed, back step, and pick a different hole to finish the play.
Lilienthal is simply big and fast, and he is really, really good at planting his foot on post routes to create separation. In fact, he had six catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns and at least four of those receptions, if not five or six, came on post routes. The route is such a specialty for him, in fact, that it's led to a new nickname…
"His name's Dan Post, that's why. That's what we called him," Leach said. "When we first got here, Lilienthal, that's a long name, that's a mouthful. And so, we said well we're going to shorten this and he'd just got a post so we called him Dan Post. One syllabled the thing and he catches posts pretty good."
— While it was a good day for the offense, the defense got nine sacks. That's quite a few. While WSU's defensive line had a good game, it's very apparent that Grinch intends to blitz the linebackers, a lot. Rush linebacker Ivan McLennan lived in the backfield, leading the team with three sacks. Dylan Hanser, also a linebacker, was second with 2.5 sacks.
"That's what coach Grinch says, we've got to get after the quarterback and that's exactly what we did," Jeremiah Allison said. "I mean we did pretty good there but there's always room for improvement. I'm definitely blitzing, we're all blitzing as a collective but you could say I'm blitzing more."
On Monday we reported that the Washington State football team was set to welcome six new student-athletes who enrolled for Spring semester. Today, the school formally announced the new roster additions.
“This is a very good start to our 2014 signing class,” said coach Mike Leach. “We have added some size along with skill positions on both sides of the ball. Having them begin classes and adjust to college life, while also participating in winter conditioning and spring practices, will benefit them going forward.”
Click here to read the school's press release.
From Pullman — Six new players are expected to join the Washington State football program today, with Markell Sanders, Marcellus Pippins, Dylan Hanser, Nick Begg, Calvin Green and Sean Krepsz all set to become Cougars. Sanders, Hanser, Begg and Krepsz are already listed in the WSU student directory, and all six are on campus according to Britton Ransford of WazzuWatch.com.
We'll have updates with quotes from the WSU coaches once they become available. For now, we've got more on the newcomers, after the jump.