PULLMAN – Well, we’re back.
The green, uneven grounds of Sacajawea Junior High have survived another nine days of stomping by Pac-12 football players; the dorms at Lewis-Clark State College are ostensibly clean and ready for a new group of students to send them into states of disrepair.
The Cougars still have four afternoon practices this week that will be open to the public, including Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. scrimmage in Martin Stadium. WSU’s preseason camp in Lewiston gave the best glimpse of what the Cougars have to offer in 2016 until the actual games begin.
So, what do we know now that we did not know when camp began? Here are five things we believe to be true.
1. The left side of the offensive line should be OK.
A lot is expected of WSU’s passing game this season, with record-setting thrower Luke Falk and a host of talented wide receivers ready to make life hard for opposing secondaries. But it won’t matter how talented the quarterback and receivers are if Falk doesn’t have time to get his passes off.
With left guard Gunnar Eklund graduated and left tackle Joe Dahl off to the NFL, WSU loses the two offensive linemen who have protected its quarterbacks’ blind sides since the start of the 2013 season.
Falk should be able to rest a little easier after watching the left side in action for nine practices. Left tackle Andre Dillard and left guard Cody O’Connell both have the size and athleticism to handle Pac-12 defensive linemen, and Mike Leach said the left side of the offensive line actually outperformed the experienced right side.
2. Jalen Thompson is the real deal.
There is not much more freshman safety Jalen Thompson could have done to declare himself ready to play. He enrolled early to participate in spring practices, intercepted passes in his first couple of practices and started running with the ones before spring practice was over.
But he still had to hold off challenges throughout fall camp to hold on to the starting strong safety spot. Charleston White and Robert Taylor both played well when they got looks at safety, but Thompson was one of the team’s defensive playmakers all camp and appears set to start games during his first year on campus.
3. The running back battle could rage on all season.
There is little doubt Jamal Morrow had the best camp of any of the running backs, and James Williams appears to be next in line, for now. But the coaches gave plenty of snaps to Keith Harrington and Gerard Wicks, and both have put plenty of good plays on film both in practices and games.
The coaches insist that no more than three of those four running backs will get significant snaps in any one game. But it looks more and more likely that who those three are will be determined on a week-to-week basis and it seems less likely that any of the four will be switched to a different position.
4. Erik Powell had a productive offseason.
Coaches have hinted that Erik Powell, one of the team’s most impressive athletes despite his position, is poised to have a big year. It looks like they are onto something after Powell nailed a 52-yarder against the wind with room to spare during WSU’s scrimmage on Sunday. And don’t forget, he was kicking off some pretty rough terrain.
Powell had a productive season in 2015, making all 49 extra-point attempts and connecting on 20 of 26 field-goal attempts. Based on his performance Sunday, it seems pretty likely he will improve on his career-long of 47 yards.
5. The punter is TBD.
The Cougars return starting punter Zach Charme, who averaged 39.6 yards per punt. Charme can doubtlessly do the job again, and it’s reasonable to assume some improvement on his part. But Tommy Park, a freshman from Mount Vernon, Washington, has a big leg, and one of his few reps resulted in the best punt of camp. The wildcard is safety Shalom Luani, who took a few reps as the punter and was a national team soccer player back home in American Samoa.
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