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WSU position preview: Maturity on offensive line provides opportunity to build depth

Eduardo Middleton (73) is one of three returning starting offensive linemen. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Eduardo Middleton (73) is one of three returning starting offensive linemen. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

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

PULLMAN – The coaches at Washington State may tend toward hyperbole when talking about just how bad the offensive line depth was when the Mike Leach regime began in Pullman back in 2012.

Saying the Cougars only had six offensive linemen on scholarship requires some fuzzy math, and no, Gunnar Eklund was not only 220 pounds.

But those are meager exaggerations. Things were pretty bad back in the days when Leach once told reporters “Our five couldn’t whip their two. Sometimes they only brought two. Which means, if five of our guys went in an alley and got in a fight with two of theirs, we would have gotten massacred.”

Gone are the days when the team had to turn to Elliott Bosch, who came to school as 215-pound walk-on tight end, to match up every week against the Pac-12’s meanest defenders.

The Cougars return three starters on the offensive line, which is pretty good. Center Riley Sorenson, right guard Eduardo Middleton and right tackle Cole Madison are each third-year starters.

WSU’s returners are well-established. Sorenson is on the watch list for the Rimmington Award, given to the nation’s top center, while he and Madison earned honorable mention all-conference honors after the season.

Their combined 67 starts mean the Cougars will be have lots of experience at Leach’s most important position. But just as importantly, it means the depth players that WSU has accrued through successful recruiting will continue to percolate, gaining strength and practice reps to apply when they are eventually needed.

“This is the best we’ve had any freshmen come out here and look,” offensive line coach Clay McGuire said. “They’re big; they’re athletic. They’re very raw, but they come out here and compete, and they’ve got a mentality.”

WSU fans will get a glimpse at that process by watching new starters Andre Dillard at left tackle and Cody O’Connell at left guard, who Leach has said are arguably outplaying their more experienced teammates.

While the two will start alongside each other for the first time when the Cougars begin their season against Eastern Washington on Sept. 3, they have plenty of experience playing next to each other. The departed left-side players, Eklund and NFL left tackle Joe Dahl, were multiyear starters.

That meant that Dillard and O’Connell were able to spend those years gaining muscle and learning the nuances of each other’s games, first as a right tackle and right guard, and then flipping sides last year.

Should any backups such as B.J. Salmonson or Carlos Freeman be needed this year, they will have had the benefit of a similar development process, learning multiple positions and gaining lots of experience through practice.

“They’ve been put in the best position possible and I think they’re coming along really well,” Sorenson said.

The WSU offensive line held up well last year. Though the Cougars tied for last in the Pac-12 with 41 sacks allowed, that is much a function of dropping back to pass a league-leading 779 times.

Quarterback Luke Falk still feels each of those hits, however. The Cougars need to cut down that sack number, and the group is confident they will be able to.

“I’m not sure there are a whole lot of surprises, just that there won’t be a drop-off,” Sorenson said. “We’ll arguably be better even though we lose Gunnar and Joe. There shouldn’t be a drop-off. We should be dominant as usual.”

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