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Report from WSU’s first spring practice

Washington State's football team took the field on Thursday, and was promptly greeted with driving hail.

Frozen water has descended upon the Cougars the last two times they suited up. Once was in El Paso, Texas, a city with an average annual snowfall of approximately none, and the other was in late March. Go figure.

Because this was WSU's first spring practice, the players were only wearing jerseys and shorts, so I'm not going to sit here and tell you that so-and-so looked great or that such-and-such offensive lineman did not hold up well against the pass rush.

But this was still the first chance we've had to see the team since the bowl game, and so there was plenty to observe. Here's what I noticed.

-- New outside receivers coach Dave Nichol was the first assistant out on the practice field, putting the receivers through their paces with a warm-up drill that mostly involves using a makeshift cannon to shoot tennis balls at the players from close range. This is a drill the Cougars have done for as long as Mike Leach has been the head coach, and it serves to reinforce the players' focus, quicken their eyes, and probably soften up their hands a bit, too.

The second assistant coach? New inside receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard, who could not be more different from his predecessor, David Yost. This isn't a comment on the merits of either coach's style – my opinion is that almost any coaching style can achieve desired results if it's done honestly and is done with knowledge and substance backing up the flash.

But Yost – a very successful assistant at many stops – had a Jeff Spicoli look and an English teacher vibe, while Shephard knows he's the boss and wants to make sure his players know it, too. Nichol, too, is a little more intense than the easy-going Graham Harrell. It's not dissimilar to how Alex Grinch coaches, and the players responded very well last year to the defensive coordinator's energy. But it looks like the receivers will get a bit of a shock to their systems this spring as they adapt to new coaching styles.

OK, that's my limit for pop psychology for today, I promise. But speaking of inside receivers…

-- Kyrin Priester lined up at inside (Y) receiver (Correction: earlier I wrote H receiver, not Y. Sorry, brain fart.), a position switch that should get your imagination running. For the most part, the Y have been faster players, who have the quickness to break open on the and can time their mesh routes with the smaller H receivers. Priester has that kind of speed, but he's big – 6-foot-1, 194-pounds – making it easier for him to bounce off a linebacker or safety who comes up to make the initial hit following a short pass.

If the move works out, and Priester is able to take advantage of his obvious natural talent, it will be difficult for defenses to defend a player who can catch a short pass over the middle, fight off a linebacker and this get into the secondary.

WSU's willingness to move Priester, who backed up Dom Williams at X receiver last year, also indicates that the coaches feel pretty good about what they have at outside receiver …

-- The coaches feel pretty good about what they have at outside receiver. Gabe Marks is a Biletnikoff Award candidate and so that's one spot taken care of. Opposite Marks is Tavares Martin, who played well as a freshman and has added considerable weight to his frame, going from gaunt to merely gangly at 6-foot-1, 182-pounds.

It's too early to tell what the Cougars have in Isaiah Johnson, but he looks like a Pac-12 wide receiver. A big Pac-12 wide receiver, at that. In fact, the 6-foot-3, 213-pound Johnson, who graduated from high school early to participate in spring practice, only looks small next to CJ Dimry, who missed all last season with an injury but looked fine today. Dimry is 6-foot-5.

It also appears that Kaleb Fossum will be squarely in the mix. Fossum was the team's holder as a true freshman walk-on last season, and a punt returner late in the year. Fossum has bulked up a bit and was a second string outside receiver today, so it appears he figures heavily in the team's plans going forward. Because of the scholarship numbers I don't expect him to get a scholarship this season – he counts against his signing class if he gets one in the first two years – but don't be surprised if his junior and senior seasons are paid for.

-- As expected, Andre Dillard started at left tackle and Cody O'Connell started at left guard. The rest of the offensive line starters retained their spots with Riley Sorenson at center, Eduardo Middleton at right guard and Cole Madison at right tackle.

-- Dylan Hanser got the start at rush linebacker with Hercules Mata'afa starting opposite him at defensive end. Interestingly enough, sophomore Logan Tago backed up Mata'afa at defensive end (he's played linebacker and nickelback already), while Nnamdi Oguayo is the second team rush.

-- Another position switch comes at safety, where Charleston White is starting next to Shalom Luani. Parker Henry retains his starting nickel spot, while Peyton Pelluer and Paris Taylor are the two linebackers. Backing them up are Aaron Porter and Frankie Luvu, while Kirkland Parker is the backup nickel.  Hunter Mattox and Ngalu Tapa are the backup interior defensive linemen.

Oh, and tight end Nick Begg is now defensive end Nick Begg.*

*None of these spots are official. It's spring practice. River Cracraft didn't start, for Pete's sake.**

-- ** You read that correctly. During the team period Cracraft, a three-year starter, did not start. Instead the starting receivers were Priester, Marks, Martin and Kyle Sweet. Cracraft seemed to take exception to not starting however, and was easily the session's MVP, catching about six passes, including a touchdown.

-- The punt returners were Johnson, Martin, Fossum and Cracraft.

-- Frankie Luvu intercepted Luke Falk during team period.

-- James Williams fired the first salvo in the running back battle, rushing for a 30ish-yard touchdown during team period. Gerard Wicks responded with a 20-30ish yard run of his own.

-- Falk threw a beautiful pass to Marks for a touchdown.

-- Jeremiah Allison watched practice. Tyler Baker was also there – he'll be covering the team for another outlet. Taylor Taliulu was there, too. He's doing video stuff for the athletic department, that is, when he's not producing the music for videos like this one.

That's all for now. The Cougars will practice again on Saturday morning. They'll likely be in shells and it won't be a "scrimmage" but if you want to watch, I'd recommend showing up around 10 a.m.

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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