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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Young Cougars secondary uses Albi turf as proving ground

Jeremiah Allison makes a one-handed interception during the Crimson and Gray Game at Albi Stadium. (Dan Pelle)

So there were more interceptions than touchdown passes during Saturday’s Crimson-Gray friendly at Albi Stadium. Is that a problem?

Maybe. But probably not.

It’s not as if every drive ended in a pick, a fumble or a botched field goal. It’s not like quarterbacks were being carted off on stretchers. No tailgates ran out of beer, and every kid with a Sharpie got an autograph. Not a discouraging word was heard about clock management.

And it’s not as if attendance at Washington State’s spring fling has plummeted 42 percent in two years.

Oh, wait. It has.

But really, everything could have gone wrong for the Cougars and they still wouldn’t have been nursing the worst football hangover in the neighborhood. Across the stateline, the Idaho Vandals woke up the morning after their intramural spring showcase and discovered that the NCAA had turned the entire fall season into exhibition games, too.

Now, does a backup quarterback’s case of the yips look so bad, Cougs?

Didn’t think so.

On top of which, there were some feel-good takeaways from coach Mike Leach’s annual Albi adventure.

If you’re acquainted at all with the Cougars, you know that the eligibility clock ran out this winter on a quintet of defensive backs who’d started almost as many games as Glenn Johnson.

Well, not really. But 126, anyway.

So there’s been lots of hand-wringing about how green are the replacements and what that might mean for a team that could well be better at every other position.

And then it turns out the best bunch on the field is the secondary.

OK, a stretch.

Still, for a long time Saturday, the only compelling thing happening on the Albi turf involved DBs and linebackers flying around causing all sorts of havoc.

Tracy Clark settling in under a can-of-corn deflection. Jeremiah Allison with a stretching, one-handed catch-of-the-day. Sebastian LaRue jumping a route for what would have been a pick-six had he not momentarily misplaced the skills that won him a scholarship as a receiver at Texas A&M. Darius Lemora laying a wicked lick on Kristoff Williams. Mini-marvel Beau Glover with another interception, and Daquawn Brown with two on starter Connor Halliday.

“For some reason,” Brown said, “Connor kept trying me today.”

In the end, yes, Cougar quarterbacks settled down to throw for 693 yards in 100 attempts. But 50 throws by Halliday will account for 300 or 400 yards on everybody this fall, and the deebs were getting enough done Saturday to suggest their quarterback might not have to produce a touchdown on every Wazzu possession.

“I thought they were aggressive,” said Leach, “and played real hard. And they’re quicker than we’ve had in the past – less experienced, but they’re quicker. And, of course, they did a good job of getting turnovers and taking the ball away.

“But the other thing is, I thought they also did a good job of contesting routes. I was pleasantly surprised. A lot of times guys can make too much of the spring game, but it seemed they were ready to play and relaxed and did well.”

This was in stark contrast to Gray quarterbacks Luke Falk, who needed a few series to find a rhythm, and the heralded Tyler Bruggman, who never did. Even Halliday’s picks were old bad-Connor flashbacks – “poor decisions,” Leach called them.

Somewhere, you could have imagined a white-courtesy-phone page for Austin Apodaca, the departed understudy.

Just as there will be times in the fall fan SOSs will go out to Deone Bucannon and Damante Horton when a freshman gets turned around by Oregon’s best.

“But the talent level is very high,” said safety Taylor Taliulu, the secondary’s resident veteran. “There’s a lot of young guys out here, but they’re making plays and I’m excited to see what they can do when the season comes.”

Defensive coordinator Mike Breske isn’t any less excited, but he’s also bullish on every rep, every summer 7-on-7, every moment devoted to develop between now and then. Because the stakes change completely when the scoreboard is turned on.

“The D-lineman or linebacker can miss a tackle and nobody sees it,” Breske said, “but when Grandma is up in the stands and Daquawn Brown misses one, everybody knows.”

That’s when thick hides and hard shells are as helpful as quick feet, and maybe this secondary has those, too. They’ve allowed a plugger like Clark to hang through hard times, and kept Brown coming back for more Saturday. Even a convert like LaRue showed some siccum in a practice scrap last week.

Toughness only takes you so far, however.

“For a young group, it’s about communicating,” said Taliulu. “If things get fast and you’re not talking to each other, that’s when things go bad. You need to have trust in the guy you’re playing beside.”

The kids earned a little trust Saturday. For a day’s work, that wasn’t bad.