PULLMAN – Cole Madison missed the final three games of the 2014-15 football season because of an illness, but the Washington State right tackle recalls that time as one of the offensive line’s finest moments.
“After every game, the first thing, they’d call me and ask how I was doing,” Madison explains. “It’s just the little things like that. We look out for each other.”
WSU’s offensive line is a cliquish group and with every major contributor – including all seven players to start a game – returning, the group has already been through at least one season together and the bonds have had plenty of time to develop.
“That’s our tightest group,” said quarterback Luke Falk. “I go to breakfast; I see them. They do everything together. I think that’s one of our strongest points as a team.”
The Cougars are relying on the offensive line to be a strength next season while the offense breaks in a new quarterback and tries to have a more explosive running game.
The talent was there last season, which was the first since Mike Leach became head coach in 2012 that the regular starters were all players the Cougars offered scholarships to out of high school. But two of the starters were second-year players, still early in their development.
“That position’s probably the most important one (to have experienced players at,” Leach said. “It’s a cross between getting bigger and stronger, as you naturally do when you get older, but also it’s choreographed pretty much with everybody around it in a unique fashion. All the positions will argue that, but none of them requires the precision that offensive line does.”
That sense of unity at the position where cohesion is most important is a big reason why the Cougars expect the offensive line to be a strength in the fall. Also, it should be one of the conference’s biggest offensive fronts. The projected starters for WSU average nearly 310 pounds, and none of them are under 300.
The backups are even bigger, and it’s a notable change from Leach’s first offensive line, which finished his first year as head coach with just two starters over 300 pounds and an average weight of 293 pounds.
The returning starters all appear to have fended off any would-be usurpers of their spots. But the best sign of a healthy line is one that can propagate its success by allowing good players to season behind it.
In that regard, there are some intriguing prospects waiting behind the starters. Andre Dillard was one of the young players coaches thought had a good chance to push the upperclassmen, but was limited for most of spring practice, losing that opportunity.
But he’s practiced this week and impressed coaches. Also practicing now is Cody O’Connell, whose sheer size – he came to WSU as a 6-foot-8, 345-pound freshman – has made him a person of intrigue. His first two years were marred by injuries that his size and countless cut blocks sustained in high school doubtlessly contributed to.
O’Connell is now a more manageable 335 pounds and has played well enough to find a spot in the two-deep at backup left tackle.
Ideally, he’ll have another year to get in shape and gel with his younger teammates.
Because while WSU’s starters haven’t been perfect – coaches aren’t happy with the number of false starts in yesterday’s practice and Saturday’s scrimmage – they are bigger, more experienced and say they’re ready to carry WSU’s offense.
“I definitely think that we’re ready to do that and that’s how we’ve been since I’ve been here,” said left tackle Joe Dahl. “We always prepare to be the best unit in the conference and the best unit in the country. That’s just how you’ve got to prepare, you’ve got to want to be the best and I think that’ll prepare us to be the best.”
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