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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cougars offensive line should be force this season

This is the fourth of eight previews looking at WSU’s position-by-position prospects for the upcoming season. Today: Offensive line. Thursday: Running backs.

PULLMAN – Cole Madison spent the 2014 season figuring out how to use his talent.

It’s rare for a redshirt freshman to start on the offensive line, where the quarterback’s five bodyguards must constantly take on the biggest, meanest players on their opponent’s roster, who are also fresher thanks to more liberal substitution patterns.

It was trial by fire, with the promise that the experience of fighting against older, savvier players would pay off over the next three years. Madison is still the youngster on an offensive line that has the potential to be the best at WSU in years, so the Cougars would like the right tackle to blossom now, please.

“He’s always been able from an athletic standpoint to get himself out of bad situations,” said offensive line coach Clay McGuire. “That’s great, but he’s got to take the next step as far as being a fundamentally sound player, and he works hard at it.”

The Cougars have the potential to protect their quarterback, and improve the run game, thanks to returning starters at every position. Those five players have combined to start 87 games in their careers and left tackle Joe Dahl and left guard Gunnar Eklund are both three-year starters.

Madison’s athleticism portends success and Dahl is considered a probable NFL and All-Conference player, so the Cougars should hold up well on the edges. Between them, from left to right, are Eklund, Riley Sorenson; who at 6-foot-4, 319 pounds is larger than any center in the NFC West, and right guard Eduardo Middleton, who some coaches and teammates consider the group’s most improved player.

It’s a close-knit group – the players know each other, and each other’s positions. Dahl and Eklund swapped positions at the end of the 2013 season and Middleton not only starts at right guard, he’s also Sorenson’s backup at center.

“They’ve really come together, that’s the thing we’ve been trying to do since we got here is create continuity amongst the group,” McGuire said. “It’s kind of taken until now to get that done.”

The offensive linemen speak glowingly of WSU’s new dispensation for running the football, saying that it gets them engaged by allowing them to take the fight to the defenders.

“That’s what we stressed the most in the offseason,” Madison said. “Just get nasty and run blocking.”

And because the Cougars have kept the same core group together, two generations of backups have grown up behind the starters. Promising underclassmen like center Carlos Freeman and Andre Dillard have been able to incubate and put on muscle without preparing for games and give WSU a deep bench from which to draw.

Next year, those players will perform the same task for WSU’s strong class of true freshmen on the line, led by mammoth Cedric Bigge-Duren, a 6-foot-6, 308-pound tackle.

“(The starters have) done a good job embracing the new guys,” Mike Leach said. “And I think that’s always a thing in development.”