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

With 13 returning starters, Washington State has options throughout the roster

PULLMAN—Washington State finally has a settled roster heading into football season.

Now, the idea is to shake it up.

Three years of using underclassmen in meaningful roles and watching them take their losses and lumps has finally yielded an experienced roster.

“The good news is we’ve got a lot of people back. We’ve got nearly everybody back,” coach Mike Leach said. “Some of them were pressed into service before it was probably ideal, but they’re what we had. Of course that experience, I think, will be helpful this year, and we have to continue to build on it.”

The number of starters a team returns from the previous season is a common statistic used when determining reasonable expectations before the season begins. According to the Pac-12 conference, the Cougars have 13 starters returning – not counting specialists – which places them right around the middle of the Pac-12.

But fall camp presents a much greater opportunity for the players behind those 13 returning starters and the nine that join them to round out the preseason starting units. On Saturday, when the WSU coaches take the Cougars to camp in Lewiston, Idaho, they will do so hoping players will emerge who can push or push past the starters.

Consider, for example, the WSU offensive line. Every starter returns, as do the backups. While the prospect of keeping the band together must be tantalizing for the coaches after years of plugging in walk-ons and underclassmen, the practice work of players such as Carlos Freeman and Cody O’Connell makes it possible and perhaps likely that WSU will still break in a new starter somewhere along the line.

“I think it could definitely happen,” coach Mike Leach said. “There were flashes of that in the spring. That could definitely happen. Then also, hopefully, we have the opportunity to play a couple more guys.”

The Cougars are not the Seattle Seahawks. They don’t repeat the word “competition” as if it were a lonely bird’s mating call. Their mantras tend to center on consistent, collective improvement rather than a constant inter-squad fight for playing time.

But the coaches’ actions suggest a premium placed reinforcing the idea that every spot is up for grabs. Even as Leach heaped praise on Luke Falk for the fill-in work he did as quarterback last season, he has kept pressure on Falk to improve by refusing to name a starter until well into fall camp, thereby providing extra incentive to backup quarterback Peyton Bender as well.

Falk is probably your starter and at Pac-12 Media Days, Leach acknowledged that he’s ahead in the competition – but deflected the idea that Falk is ahead because of his experience last season.

“Well, I think the hardest thing (for Bender to overcome) is (Falk) is a quality player,” Leach said. “So the biggest battle is just going to be the quality of play of the other guy. So then we’ll tee it up and let them both compete for it.”

Unlike the offense, where five of the seven returning starters are concentrated on the line, the defense’s six incumbants are spread throughout the unit. Other players have the experience of preparing for a game in that role thanks to a spot start or two.

The defense also saw the greatest number of young players pressed into duty last season, often because the freshman or sophomore starter in front of them was physically unable to play.

If healthy, all those players trying to extend their brief stays as key contributors could should yield some capable starters.