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

WSU spring game offers chance for unknown players to emerge

PULLMAN – Although spring games are ultimately spiffed-up practices that serve to widen the football program’s ticket-buying base by giving fans a free taste of the game-day experience, the annual scrimmages have been fairly pivotal in Luke Falk’s Washington State career. Last year’s Crimson and Gray Game was the previously unknown walk-on quarterback’s debut performance for Crimson fans and he rose to the occasion, completing 20 of 31 pass attempts for 213 yards and a touchdown. It would certainly be an oversimplification to assume that the degree to which he outplayed fellow quarterback Tyler Bruggman – who threw three interceptions and no touchdowns – chased the former four-star recruit from the program. But the game epitomized an illuminating spring in which Falk slowly pilfered the backup quarterback mantle from his more anticipated teammate, likely contributing to Bruggman’s eventual transfer. Even more seminal in Falk’s career was the spring game two years prior, after Falk decided to forego an Ivy League education and likely starring role at Cornell to take his chances in Pullman. “Those are fun memories for me,” Falk said. “I went when Austin Apodaca and Halliday were playing and that was the day I decided I wanted to come here. Really that was a big key in my mind, like I really want to come here.” So, while spring games may not mean much to coaches – Iowa State’s Paul Rhodes claims to toss the stat sheet in the toilet – they can serve as touchstone moments for previously unseen players and the fans getting to know their names. Such as Keith Harrington, a receiver-turned-running back that was kept under wraps as a redshirt last season but adds some explosiveness to WSU’s backfield. Mike Leach has continuously alluded to the fact that he’s had the most impressive spring of the running backs and that returners Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks have had to run harder because of his presence. “They know one slip-up and it’s next man up,” says running backs coach Jim Mastro. And this year’s Falk might be redshirt freshman quarterback Peyton Bender. While Falk is still the likely starter at quarterback next season (Leach acknowledges that he has had the better spring), Bender has kept it close. Leach has said that he won’t name a starting quarterback until at least the middle of fall camp, and if Bender can outperform Falk today it would serve as a nice springboard into the offseason. Today’s real debutante is defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and the base nickel defense the Cougars have spent the last month installing. Today will be the first chance for most WSU fans to see five defensive backs running around regularly. And they can evaluate whether they think Grinch’s exuberant coaching style has led to a more energetic defense, as Leach says it has. “Everybody’s hustling, everybody’s running to the ball and if they give up a play-there’s not the drop-off, everybody’s hustling to the next play,” Leach said. “I think (Grinch) has done a good job teaching technique, he’s really emphasized it and is more hands-on than we’ve been in the past.” While prior WSU head coach Paul Wulff had his starting offense play the backup defense, and vice versa. Leach prefers to create two separate sides of roughly equal talent, a Crimson squad and a Gray one, with starters and backups interspersed throughout both rosters. That method lends itself to competitive contests, if also some breakdowns on both sides caused by miscommunication. It should be a good day for the starting receivers, who will likely be able to take advantage of some mismatches.