I finally made it out to Martin Stadium to watch the Cougars in their third spring football practice and saw an impressive stand by the defense.
While the offense appeared to have the upper hand for most of practice (more on that in a bit), the defense rallied around booming defensive line coach Joe Salave'a's cries of "fourth quarter!" and forced a tie of 23 points apiece with one play to go from just a couple yards away from the end zone.
Quarterback Luke Falk thought he found a receiver in the end zone, but linebacker Jeremiah Allison tipped the ball high in the air and snagged it like a centerfielder, completing the defense's comeback and forcing the offense to do up-downs.
Here's what else I saw at practice:
-- The starting team offensive line from last season returns intact and from left to right still goes: Joe Dahl, Gunnar Eklund, Riley Sorenson, Eduardo Middleton, Cole Madison. While the receivers sub liberally, it appears that if a game were played today the starters would be Dom Williams and Calvin Green on the outside, with Gabe Marks and Tyler Baker inside.
-- There is obviously plenty of time for that to change, however, and those starters are influenced in part by the players that were limited during today's practice. Nick Begg, Brett Bartolone, Nate DeRider, Robert Barber, Ngalu Tapa, River Cracraft and Frankie Luvu all wore the yellow jerseys today, and I expect Barber and Cracraft will continue to throughout the spring.
-- Alex Grinch wasn't lying about running a base nickel defense. The Cougars spent all practice in nickel with Darius Lemora appearing to take over as the starting nickel back. That left Allison and Peyton Pelluer as the starting linebackers, Marcellus Pippins and Charleston White as the starting cornerbacks and Daniel Ekuale, Darryl Paulo and Destiny Vaeao on the defensive line.
Kache Palacio was the starting Rush linebacker, which is similar to last year's Buck position except Palacio began far fewer snaps with his hand on the ground.
-- Based on seeing him this one time, it looks like Clemson transfer will be one of WSU's better receivers next year. Shame that he won't be playing. Priest will have to sit out because of NCAA transfer rules but he should give the starting defense fits as a member of scout team. From what I saw, he runs very good routes and runs the quickly, has good ability in the open field and has good hands. In fact, I only saw him drop one pass …
-- Priester dropped a pass because he was leveled by David Bucannon, little brother of Deone. The younger Bucannon had one of his best practices I've seen, laying a couple big hits and generally making his presence felt. In fact, I'm pretty sure Priester dropped the pass before Bucannon's hit because he knew it was coming. Bucannon, a redshirt junior, hasn't played much for the Cougars but appears to be taking full advantage of the "clean slate" given by a new defensive coordinator.
-- Dom Williams also had a good day at receiver, and it looked like he's gotten a little better at contorting his body with the ball in the air to adjust to its flight path since last season.
-- Robert Lewis really looks like he's coming into his own. Between the drills, skeleton drills and team period, he probably had more catches than anyone on the day. His most impressive came when he stopped in his tracks on a comeback route, sending Bucannon sprinting past him and opening himself up for an easy grab.
-- Gabe Marks was solid as well – he ripped off a nice run during team period – but it was an otherwise pedestrian day for the receivers. The new crop of walk-ons, some of whom may not have played football for a year or more, could use some Stickum.
-- A couple former Cougars at practice today. One was Xavier Cooper, who is preparing for the NFL draft. He's been very productive since the season's end and has season his stock rise rather quickly. We chatted for awhile toward the end of practice and he told me that NFL teams are telling him they expect him to be drafted as early as the late first round and not later than the early-to-mid third round.
Also dropping by practice was cornerback Daquawn Brown, who was dismissed for violating team rules after the season. While Brown had no contact with the coaches, he spent most of his time shouting encouragement to the defensive backs – OK, he also taunted the receivers a bit as well.
People close to the program told us and other outlets when he was dismissed that the Cougars did not intend to provide an avenue for him to return to the team, but situations can obviously change and if there was a way to get back in good standing with the team, showing up at practice can't hurt.
-- The kick returners on Tuesday were Jamal Morrow, Gabe Marks and Marcellus Pippins.
-- Now, for the quarterbacks. Falk and Peyton Bender split reps pretty evenly, although Falk spent a little more time with the first string offensive line, for what that's worth. Falk is clearly ahead and it's because of his command of the offense. There are times it seems like Bender throws a little better ball or pulls out a nice move, but he also throws the ball to the wrong spot or makes a bad read, occasionally. Falk almost never does either, at least in practice.
Falk also ripped off about a 30 yard run when he saw that the defense vacated the left side of the field on a passing play.
In the first skeleton drill, Falk completed 10 of 12 passes with the two incompletions coming on drops. Doesn't get much better. Bender missed his first pass and then completed the next 10, finishing 12 of 14.
During team period Bender went first and his first pass was tipped by Greg Hoyd III. I had him finishing 9 of 13. He threw a bad interception to Charleston White – it went right at the DB – but responded well by throwing a touchdown to Calvin Green on the next play. He also had a touchdown pass up against the goal line to Gabe Marks.
I had Falk finishing 8 of 12 with Gerard Wicks scoring on a seven-yard touchdown run. Lemora made a nice play in the slot from his new position, sticking with speedy Robert Lewis to break up a pass.
-- The Cougars will practice again at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday. The public is welcome to attend, and come say "hi" if you see me.