The first day of Washington State's season belonged to the defense. By my count, and I may have missed a couple since the Cougars used two fields, there were seven passes intercepted and many more were broken up. The day fittingly ended on a turnover as well, when Taylor Taliulu stripped Tyler Baker just short of the end zone and Charleston White scooped up the ball.
It would not be accurate to say that quarterback Luke Falk was despondent after practice, but he wasn't exactly chipper, describing his play as sloppy and saying that the offense lacked energy. True, with the exception of some outbursts following big plays by the receivers, the defense seemed to be having a lot more fun throughout Saturday's practice.
Here is the blow-by-blow:
-- One player who caught my eye early in practice was Tavares Martin Jr., a 6-foot-1 receiver from Belle Glade, Florida. Martin's skinny but he has long arms and catches the ball cleanly and well away from his body. The coaches seemed impressed with his footwork in early drills, and he has a lot of suddenness to his game, making multiple jukes on one screen pass that made him hard for defenders to track. Whether or not he plays this season, Martin Jr. seems like one to keep an eye on.
-- Another freshman I noted was Logan Tago, a 6-foot-3, 228-pound player from Pago Pago, American Samoa. On signing day coach Mike Leach said that Tago could play any of about eight positions. For now, he's listed merely as an "athlete" on WSU's roster, the only player I can recall being given that designation. On Saturday, he appeared to be getting his first look at outside linebacker. But who knows where he'll be on Sunday?
-- I overheard the strength coaches talking about how big the scout team offensive line is, and they're right. The freshmen offensive linemen are simply massive. None more so than the aptly-named Cedric Bigge-Duren, who checks in at 6-foot-6, 308-pounds and looks even bigger because of his curly mane. So, the freshman is bigger than all but a couple of the Seattle Seahawks offensive linemen. And, he didn't look particularly chubby, either.
-- Safety Sulaiman Hameed was limited in practice today. With Hameed not participating, the starting safeties were Isaac Dotson and Taylor Taliulu. David Bucannon and Willie Roach, the latter of whom had a good practice, intercepting a goal line pass from Peyton Bender, backed them up. Darius Lemora started at nickelback his backup was Colton Teglovic.
-- Leach and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch weren't shy about throwing the young defensive backs into the fire, and a few of them really stepped up. Cornerback Kirkland Parker, a transfer from Blinn College, got some reps with the second team, as did Darrien Molton. Molton in particular rose to the challenge, intercepting a pass from Bender during the team period. Bender got him back, however, targeting the freshman on touchdown passes up the left sideline to Dom Williams and Kyrin Priester on consecutive plays.
-- I may not mention him quite as much going forward because he has to sit out this year but Priester, the Clemson transfer, has a great chance to be the team's best receiver next year. He gave the secondary problems all day. During the WR vs. DB drill he simply blew past Deion Singleton on a vertical route, catching the touchdown pass over his shoulder. Later in the drill, when the offense was practicing at the goal line, Pat Porter did a solid job jamming Priester at the line. It didn't matter, though, because Priester was strong enough to leap up through Porter to find the football and secure it despite a cocoon of football player enveloping him.
-- The defense really got on a roll during the skeleton passing drill. Falk went first and Jeremiah Allison should have intercepted his first pass. Taylor Taliulu broke up the second pass and Darius Lemora got a hand on the third. When Falk finally completed a pass, it was to running back Gerard Wicks shortly beyond the line of scrimmage and the defense closed quickly.
Unofficially, I have Falk completed 7 of 13 passes with an interception snagged by Willie Roach. When the Cougars moved up to the red zone portion of the drill, Falk went 2 of 2 with a touchdown pass to River Cracraft. Against the goal line Falk was at his best, throwing touchdown passes to Robert Lewis and John Thompson after Dotson broke up his first attempt.
Bender started off better, throwing a touchdown to Thompson on his first pass. However, Molton intercepted his second pass. According to my notebook, Bender completed 10 of 15 passes and had passes broken up by Darius Lemora and Kirkland Parker. He completed both red zone passes, throwing a touchdown to Baker but was picked off by Roach on the goal line.
-- The kicker and punter competitions appear to be wide open.
-- The second team defense really dominated the first team offense during the team portion of practice. This was also our chance to look at the depth chart as is stood today – maybe, or maybe they were just giving guys looks – and Kirkland Parker was opposite Pat Porter on the second team defense to start out. Roach and Bucannon were the safeties with Robert Barber at nose tackle, Reggie Coates on the end and Dylan Hanser at Buck.
Coates pressured Bender on the first play, forcing the quarterback to throw the ball away. What followed was a handoff to Keith Harrington, completed passes to Gabe Marks and Robert Lewis, and then it got ugly. The next sequence of plays was: Willie Roach pass breakup, Darius Lemora interception, completed pass, Ivan McLennan sack, nice run by Jamal Morrow, Molton interception, Lewis drop, incomplete pass, Jeremiah Allison strip sack. Bender then recovered, however, finishing the series with three completed passes, two of which were for touchdowns.
Falk fared better during team period, checking into more runs and hitting the defense over the top for touchdowns to Baker (thanks to some nice blocking from Daniel Lilienthal), Dom Williams and River Cracraft, unless he was sacked on that last play.
-- A couple other notes: Junior WSU receiver Brett Bartolone has traded in his cleats for a clipboard. He was tracking plays during the team period and Leach confirmed after practice that he has taken a manager's role working with the wide receivers. Bartolone made nine starts in 2012 as a freshman but has struggled with injuries.
Also, first-year players Treshon Broughton and Thomas Toki were not at practice. Leach was reluctant to comment on the missing players but said he expects them both to enroll shortly. The coach did not comment on receiver Calvin Green, who was not at practice. Also missing was freshman T.J. Fehoko. Some outlets have reported that Fehoko was injured during the offseason.
-- Check out our story in tomorrow's paper for more from Cougars preseason camp.