PULLMAN – Just one day after the Washington State Cougars wrapped up their spring football practices, the coaches were on airplanes fanning out across the west coast in search of next year’s early enrollees.
The 15 practices are over, a little earlier than Mike Leach would prefer.
“I’d like to have five more (practices),” Leach said after the final one. “Not 10 more, but five more.”
The players get a bit of a break from football with finals starting next week, but before the month ends they will be back from break and participating in offseason conditioning workouts, quarterback-led seven-on-seven sessions and doing whatever it is linemen do to keep mean in the offseason.
With new rules allowing the coaches more time with the players over the summer, the constant search for new players and the constant maintenance of current ones, the end of spring practice has mostly manufactured significance.
The players will not hit each other as much for a while, but the football never really ends, anymore.
But the end of spring practices – the last of which was held the Tuesday following the Crimson and Gray game – does delineate between WSU’s observable improvement and the long period of time in which the team will be unseen by outsiders.
So, how can we expect the Cougars to look different when they next emerge in August?
For starters, although WSU looked bigger, faster and stronger than it has in a long time during March and April, the Cougars were undeniably sloppy at times as well. From the start until the end of spring practices, the coaches frequently had to stop practice and demand up-downs from players who were not sharp in their execution or not in the right place during plays.
“We saw it in scrimmages, practices, the spring game, guys who had gotten so many reps of the same play all spring would just randomly not do their jobs or be where they’re supposed to be,” said linebacker Peyton Pelluer. “So really trusting the system and being where the coaches put us.”
Spring was also our first look at the Cougars since their Sun Bowl win on the day after Christmas, so there was plenty of new information to take in. The team not being so crisp is likely due to an experience drain, with multi-year starters like Dom Williams, Destiny Vaeao, Jeremiah Allison, Joe Dahl, Taylor Taliulu and others graduating.
The tradeoff to losing those established players is that the recruits attracted by Bill Moos’ investments in facilities and coaches are matriculating into starting roles, and the new players are more physically capable than their predecessors.
Allison was an instinctive player and a natural leader, whose voice and ability on the football field will be missed. But Frankie Luvu is simply bigger, faster and naturally meaner – all qualities that are boons to a position whose role is essentially to get places quickly and be violent.
Early enrollee freshmen Jalen Thompson and Isaiah Johnson made big strides during spring practice. Leach said that Johnson got in better shape simply by going through college practices, and by the end of spring that allowed him to start making meaningful contributions during scrimmages. Imagine what could happen after a full summer of nonstop conditioning.
The Cougars certainly have a lot to work on before the start of next season. If more athletic players can’t learn to execute as well as those that left the program, the team will not improve.
But based on how the Cougars attacked their first 15 practices heading into next season, the coaches think they have what it takes to keep building off last year’s successful season.
“I was happy overall with the effort,” said outside receivers coach Dave Nichol. “It’s kind of been documented we were down a few guys, but a lot of guys got a lot of reps. We can coach off this film. There’s a lot of stuff to work on, but the attitude and effort, we can work with that.”
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