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Young, unsung Offensive line makes Cougars go

Washington State junior guard Gunnar Eklund leads a unit expected to start two redshirt freshmen and a sophomore. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Washington State junior guard Gunnar Eklund leads a unit expected to start two redshirt freshmen and a sophomore. (Tyler Tjomsland)

This is the sixth of eight previews looking at WSU’s position-by-position prospects for the upcoming season. Today: Offensive line. Tomorrow: Wide receivers.

PULLMAN – It’s tempting to be misled by the sheer numbers produced by Washington State’s Air Raid offense.

The quarterback will be among the country’s leaders in passing yards by default and receivers will pile up the receptions and touchdowns at twice the rate of their similarly-talented peers at institutions that still deploy a run game.

Meanwhile, the guys who make it all work, the offensive linemen, get forgotten thanks to a lack of easily digestible statistics.

“It’s the most important position no matter what kind of offense you have,” coach Mike Leach says. “It’s a group we recruit aggressively.”

That aggressive recruiting was necessary because, as Leach said, “We were short-handed when we got here.”

The coaching staff managed to cobble together a starting unit for the past two seasons but with three offseason departures those recruits are being thrown into action this season without the benefit of the multi-year period most players need to develop at the position.

The Cougars will have a particularly inexperienced right side of the line, starting redshirt freshman Cole Madison at tackle and Eduardo Middleton at guard. Sophomore Riley Sorenson appears to be winning the competition to start at center.

These youngsters will be tasked with the all-important job of keeping quarterback Connor Halliday upright.

“We have to get experienced as fast as we can to get the most out of our film work we can and out of practice,” Leach said.

“Because just based on experience we have to make up for lost time.”

Even the two returning starters on the left side switched positions before last season’s New Mexico Bowl and will keep those positions this year. So Joe Dahl is now the left tackle and Gunnar Eklund is at left guard.

Both are juniors, and as two of the only upperclassmen in the unit are having to assume a leadership role while still acquainting themselves with new positions.

What the offensive line gives up in experience, however, it will make up for in size. The starting offensive line in last season’s bowl game averaged about a milkshake more than 288 pounds. This year’s projected starting group will average almost 310.

Not only are they bigger but coaches say they move better as well, which is particularly important given Leach’s system has the linemen take massive splits, lining up with a sizable gap between each other to cover more ground.

“Our line is young but they’re so athletic,” said running backs coach Jim Mastro, who has seen a big improvement in run blocking. “Big athletic guys, they can cover people up. They can get the safeties and corners and that’s huge.”

If nothing else the linemen will have aged simply by going up against WSU’s veteran defensive line in practice every day. It’s not a battle the offensive players often win, but at least it prepares them for the challenges ahead.

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