Joe Dahl had just played his final football game in his hometown and the grin he wore spoke volumes. Standing at least a head taller than everyone in his group of family and friends on the green turf of Joe Albi Stadium, the grin shone like a beacon.
Dahl helped his Crimson squad to a win in the annual intra-squad, Crimson and Gray scrimmage that caps spring workouts. He’d played high school football on this same field and he was holding off walking out for the last time as a player.
The team buses to Spokane to play the annual spring game. But instead of climbing back on the bus after the final whistle, the team, the coaches, everyone stays on the field to meet and greet the fans who turned out to watch. Autographs are signed and family and friends gather round to share the moment. It’s a feel-good setting and everyone is willing to linger.
The University High grad heads into his final season on the Washington State football team, his third as a starting offensive lineman.
“I can’t believe it’s gotten here so fast,” he said.
Saturday’s game wasn’t where Dahl originally expected to be on the brink of the final season of his college football career. He left U-Hi for Missoula, but after he spent a redshirt year at the University of Montana, he transferred to Pullman and sat out another season per NCAA regulations – coach Mike Leach’s first on the Palouse.
From the beginning Leach talked about the importance of building a big, strong offensive line to make his “Air Raid” offense click.
“Let me put it this way,” Leach said last week. “When we got here there were six linemen on scholarship and three of them shouldn’t have been. Now we have 18 of them and they’re all fighting for playing time.”
The former U-Hi Titan has been part of Leach’s foundation.
Dahl started every game for which he’s been eligible under Leach – 25 straight starts, a dozen at left guard and the last 13 as the team’s starting left tackle. After a 2014 season in which Dahl went almost the entire season without giving up a quarterback sack, he was named WSU’s Mike Utley Offensive Lineman of the Year.
In each of his starts, Dahl has lined up next to Gunnar Ecklund, a fellow fifth-year senior from Lake Stevens. For the past 10 or so games, the pair have lined up beside center Riley Sorenson.
That trio is the core of the Cougars’ offensive line heading into the 2015 season.
“When you start that many games with someone, you really get a sense of confidence in each other,” Dahl said. “I’m excited about this season. All five of last year’s starters are back and we’re really coming together as a unit.”
At a Cougar Club luncheon last week, Leach talked about how important it is to the program’s success to have a strong, cohesive group of offensive linemen.
Yes, you need them to open holes for the running game and plug them for the passing game, he said. But it’s more than that.
“Every successful team I’ve ever been a part of, the offensive line has run the locker room,” Leach said. “They set the tone in the locker room. If there’s music playing, it’s their music.
“Part of it’s because they are all big guys, sure. But an offensive line unit has to be tight. They are a group that has to play together as a unit, so they grow close. And that’s what sets the tone in the locker room.”
Dahl gets that ideal.
“I understand exactly what he means,” he said. “And I think we’re almost there. I think our offensive line can be that leader.”
The stage is open. Leach has said he will not name a starting quarterback until at least midway through fall practice, so there is no obvious player taking the lead as the program heads into a summer of individual devotion to improvement.
After spring drills, college football teams officially disband.
Unofficially, the vast majority of Cougars remain in Pullman, taking advantage of a state-of-the-art weight room, not to mention a team training table manned by professional chefs.
“This is going to be a fun season,” said Dahl, grinning. “I think our offense can do some pretty special things. And there’s a buzz with our defense this year that we didn’t have last year.
“All I know is that we’re going to spend the summer getting stronger and faster. I don’t know about the chefs, but we’re going to put in a lot of work.”
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