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What I’m excited to watch during WSU spring practice

Mike Leach is Associated Press’ Pac-12 coach of the year.
Mike Leach is Associated Press’ Pac-12 coach of the year.

Thanks to Washington State's success during the last football season and the return of established stars, it is reasonable to assume quite a bit of football surrounding the spring football practices that will serve as a first glimpse at what should be a highly anticipated 2016 season.

But the things that give cause for excitement next year are the same reasons WSU's spring should be relatively drama free. There will be no controversy at quarterback, no matter how many "OR"s the coaches are sure to list on the upcoming depth charts.

The Cougars return stars and plenty of starters on both sides of the ball, and the special teams should look pretty similar to the 2015 unit. So, what is there to watch during the spring football practices, which start on Thursday and will continue every subsequent Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday until late April? What should fans look forward to viewing for the first time during the annual Crimson and Gray Game at Joe Albi Stadium on April 23rd at 1p.m.?

Well, here are five questions I'm excited to have answered by watching the practices.

1. What will the left side of the WSU offensive line look like?

Washington State's success on offense in 2015 can largely be attributed to its veteran offensive line. The line held up while Luke Falk went through some early struggles passing the ball, and paved the way for a successful ground game. But with first team All-Pac-12 left tackle Joe Dahl graduating, as well as senior left guard Gunnar Eklund, the Cougars suddenly have to replace 73 starts on the left side of their line.

Andre Dillard seems the most likely to replace Dahl, and don't be surprised to see Cody O'Connell get the early reps at guard. Dillard filled in ably after Dahl was injured last season, and it will be interesting to see if he has maintained his athleticism after gaining about 20 pounds this offseason. If that starting lineup holds, the Cougars will at least be big, averaging 319 pounds per player.

Fortunately for WSU, the line appears to be in pretty good shape regardless. Right guard Eduardo Middleton was named to the AP All-Conference first team, while Center Riley Sorenson and right tackle Cole Madison were each named honorable mention by the coaches.

When 60 percent of your starters earned some sort of postseason honor, you're doing fine. That said, what should be a good line could become a dominant one if the left side can hold its own, and a dominant offensive line could be the difference between playing for a conference championship or not.

2. Do the Cougars have a replacement for Dom Williams?

The Cougars are going to have a deep group of receivers. Gabe Marks is back and will probably get another shot at the Biletnikoff Award, River Cracraft is suddenly a senior and the Cougars have plenty of underclassmen who proved themselves in spot duty champing at the bit to get a bigger role. But besides Marks, Williams was WSU's best big-play threat. Tavares Martin showed plenty of talent as a true freshman last season, and he's got the speed to stretch the field in the same manner as Williams.

But Martin did most of his damage after the catch last year, and has not really shown the ability to make the deep catches that were Williams' trademark. Don't discount Kyrin Priester, who may have the best physical tools of any skill position player on the team.

Priester was the story of preseason camp last season, and while he never really made the impact that was anticipated, he is still a young, talented player. And now he's an experienced one, too.

The Cougars will also take a long look at Isaiah Johnson, a 6-foot-3 freshman from Florida who graduated high school early to participate in spring practice.

3. Can James Williams become a top-three running back?

With three solid running backs in Keith Harrington, Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow, the Cougars had the luxury to redshirt Williams, who running backs coach Jim Mastro called the most athletic player he'd ever recruited.

But all three of regular contributors return, and Mastro will have a decision to make after Williams spent his first year on campus regularly dominating his peers during practice.

On the one hand, Keith Harrington is the safest of the three running backs because he has the most unique skillset. Morrow is a shifty back with some power, Wicks and Williams are both power backs with speed, but Harrington, a former receiver, is the closest thing to a scatback, and he's the guy who did the most damage on running back screen passes the Cougars are fond of.

But Morrow is actually WSU's best receiving running back and Wicks is perhaps the team's hardest runner. Furthermore, Harrington had some trouble holding onto the ball last season, and a few spring fumbles could make Mastro's decision an easy one.

The reality is, all four backs will likely be needed. WSU gives its running backs a lot of touches, and the chances of some missed time due to injury or overuse is high. But only three of four capable backs are likely to start the season in the rotation, and there is a good chance Williams will push an established veteran to the back of the queue.

4. Do any of the early-enrollees look ready to contribute immediately?

Besides Johnson, three other recruits enrolled early and will try to get a leg up on the rest of the freshmen next season. Jalen Thompson has already impressed coaches just because of what he can do in the weight room, and that athleticism means he could contribute on either side of the ball.

Thompson is currently listed as a defensive back, so keep an eye out in our practice reports for updated news on where he plays, and to see if he takes a few snaps on offense.

Junior college transfer Garrett McBroom should contend for playing time immediately at defensive end. And Justus Rogers will try to convince coaches he can play quarterback in the Pac-12. If he can't, he's got a shot to play sooner than later at safety.

5. Who are WSU's best pass rushers?

Just between rush linebackers Kache Palacio and Ivan McClennan, and defensive ends Destiny Vaeao and Darryl Paulo, the Cougars lose 22.5 of the 33 quarterback sacks made by the WSU defense a year ago. Hercules Mata'afa will need some help pressuring opposing quarterbacks, and the Cougars will rely on some relatively green players to help him out.

Dylan Hanser and Nnamdi Oguayo will be in the mix at rush linebacker based on their speed alone, and don't be surprised to see Logan Tago get some snaps there as well. At defensive end the Cougars will have to be more creative to find capable players, one of the reasons signing McBroom was so critical for WSU last February.

Jacob Thorpe
Jacob Thorpe joined The Spokesman-Review in 2013. He currently is a reporter for the Sports Desk covering Washington State University athletics.

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