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WSU position preview: Competition keen for playing time at receiver spots

Washington State receiver Robert Lewis (15) slips a Wyoming tackle during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, Sep 19, 2015, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State receiver Robert Lewis (15) slips a Wyoming tackle during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, Sep 19, 2015, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

This is the third of eight WSU Cougars football position previews. Today: Receivers. Next: Offensive line

PULLMAN – When Washington State’s new wide receivers coach arrived in Pullman, he did not have a car. So, he turned to WSU’s new wide receivers coach for some help.

Outside receivers coach Dave Nichol was hired immediately after the team’s Sun Bowl victory in late December, so when JaMarcus Shephard arrived without wheels in January, Nichol was happy to ferry the new inside receivers coach around.

The two bonded over their shared experience of coaching at smaller programs in the south (East Carolina for Nichol, Western Kentucky for Shephard) and how their respective receiver units could best complement each other.

“I like his teaching style, what he does,” Shephard said. “We’re learning from each other. We think it’s a good match made in heaven, call it ‘Ebony and Ivory.’”

The pair have very different styles. Shephard is unreserved during practice, injecting energy into each play with his vocal, oh so vocal, leadership style. During WSU’s first scrimmage he loudly noted right before the snap to Kyle Sweet that he had yet to catch a pass. Sweet caught a touchdown on the play.

And if the receivers are having a good day, the defenders can’t complain much about any smack talk the offensive players are dishing out – they’re getting far worse from the coach.

Nichol, by contrast, is inconspicuous during practice. He’s always coaching, but prefers to sidle up to his receivers as they leave the field after a play and get his coaching points across in private.

WSU’s inside and outside receiver groups have differing strengths, as well. For Nichol, there is little experience beyond returning Biletnikoff Award semifinalist Gabe Marks. But the Cougars have oodles of talent on the outside.

Tavares Martin will start at X-receiver, and the true sophomore is one of the fastest players on the team at any position. He moves gracefully with the ball, and is able to get behind defenses to make big plays.

Now he just has to learn how to make small ones. Nichol has emphasized that to be a complete receiver, Martin needs to be able to consistently make the seven or eight yard catches that are the engine of the Air Raid, not just the 35-yard knockout punches.

“What he’s been working really hard on is the overall receiver stuff: start, alignment, all that kind of stuff,” Nichol said.

While Marks will almost certainly be WSU’s most productive receiver in 2016, he’s going to have to give up some snaps to Isaiah Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 216-pound freshman who has been very impressive during the preseason.

When Marks missed practices with an undisclosed injury, Johnson started at Z-receiver and became perhaps the team’s most productive receiver.

“He stepped up when I went down, but he was already good,” Marks said. “He lost a lot of weight after spring ball and he’s playing really good right now.”

Shephard’s group is full of steady, experienced players. Diminutive Robert Lewis (5-foot-9, 165-pounds) has a reputation as the best blocker among the wide receivers, and has been making consistent 15-yard plays over the middle for years.

River Cracraft is the team’s steadiest player and most reliable third-down option, while Sweet, a sophomore, has impressive quickness and is consistent route-runner.

The inside and outside receivers are well aware of which group had the better day, and believe that the competition between the receivers will bring out their best qualities in the same manner as a competition against the defense.

“We’ve got to have some friendly competition,” Cracraft said. “It’s us against the wideouts sometimes, and it’s always us against the defensive backs. … Sometimes the outsides get it, most of the time the insides get it.”

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