The Washington State football team begins its 2016 on Aug. 6, in Lewiston, Idaho with great promise and greater expectations. The Cougars return their top passer, rusher, receiver, and a host of proven defenders, which gives the team degrees of certainty and pressure alike.
While every spot is ostensibly up for grabs, there are unlikely to be many new faces in the starting lineups when the Cougars take on Eastern Washington in the home opener. That being said, how well the new starters integrate with the more experienced players will be one of the key factors determining whether the Cougars can live up the hype.
Like I said, no spot is safe (except Luke Falk’s). But here are some educated guesses about what the starting lineups will look like when the Cougars put on their cleats next week.
Luke Falk, junior. 6-foot-4, 214 pounds. Falk had an ascendant sophomore season, leading the nation in passing average (380.5 yards per game) while starting 12 games and leading the Cougars to nine wins. Falk enters his junior year as one of the best QBs in the Pac-12 and, maybe, the country.
Waiting in the wings: Freshman Tyler Hilinski redshirted last season and was not expected to ascend to the backup position this quickly. But Peyton Bender leaving the program leaves the Cougars with few options.
Depth grade: D
Jamal Morrow, junior. 5-9, 191. Morrow was the team captain for the final nine games last season, emerging as a dependable rusher and receiver. He carried the ball 53 times for 347 yards, while adding 33 receptions, 294 yards and four scores to WSU’s aerial attack.
Waiting in the wings: Gerard Wicks and Keith Harrington have proven themselves with heavy games use last season, and freshman James Williams might be the best of all.
Depth grade: A
Outside: Gabe Marks, senior. 6-0, 188. Marks is the WSU player most likely to contend for All-America honors as he tries to catch more than 100 passes for the second consecutive season.
Tavaris Martin, sophomore. 6-1, 188. Martin was thrown into the fire early last year. The Cougars expect big things from the speedster now that he has some experience.
Waiting in the wings: When 6-3, 214-pound freshman Isaiah Johnson arrived in the spring, his game-ready strength turned some heads. Kaleb Fossum always seems to find a way to contribute.
Depth grade: B+
Inside: Robert Lewis, junior. 5-9, 162 pounds. Made 43 catches last season and his plus-blocking belies his size.
River Cracraft, senior. 6-0, 203. Cracraft enters his fourth season as a starter for the Cougars. He has been one of WSU’s most dependable third-down players since he arrived on campus.
Waiting in the wings: John Thompson has been a solid player in practice for the Cougars for years and is ready to assume a bigger role. Kyle Sweet showed sticky hands when he got his opportunities as a freshman last season.
Left tackle: Andre Dillard, sophomore. 6-5, 290. The Cougars molded Dillard from a lanky basketball player into a big and burly offensive lineman. He has the most important job on the team: keeping Falk healthy.
Left guard: Cody O’Connell, junior. 6-8, 351. You won’t find a more imposing interior lineman in the Pac-12, particularly when he’s rushing up the field at a surprisingly fast clip.
Center: Riley Sorenson, senior. 6-4, 327. One of WSU’s most dependable and experienced players, Sorenson has started 21 games in the middle of WSU’s offensive line over the last two seasons.
Right guard: Eduardo Middleton, senior. 6-5, 323. Middleton was one of WSU’s most improved players last season and has made 25 starts in his career.
Right tackle: Cole Madison, junior. Has quick feet and solidly built. Madison is another three-year starter on WSU’s offensive line.
Waiting in the wings: By finding multiyear starters like Madison, Middleton and Sorenson, the Cougars have been able to develop seasoned backups like B.J. Salmonson, while recruiting bigger athletes like underclassmen Cedric Bigge-Duren and Noah Osur-Myers.
Offensive line depth grade: B
Defensive end: Hercules Mata’afa, sophomore. 6-2, 245. Maybe WSU’s best NFL prospect, Mata’afa emerged late last season as the most destructive force on the defense.
Waiting in the wings: Nnamdi Oguayo showed during spring he has the strength and speed to contribute early in his career.
Nose tackle: Robert Barber, senior. 6-3, 290. Quick and powerful, Barber had a productive spring and set himself up for a big senior season on the Palouse.
Waiting in the wings: Ngalu Tapa is has been an intriguing prospect for a while but can’t seem to stay on the field for extended stretches. The Cougars do not have much else in the middle.
Tackle: Daniel Ekuale, junior. 6-3, 296. Ekuale has the size and strength to hold the edge and finds ways hassle the passer.
Waiting in the wings: Garrett McBroom, a junior college transfer, showed up for spring practice and quickly made his way into the starting lineup.
Defensive line depth grade: B-
Inside linebackers: Peyton Pelluer, junior. 6-0, 229. Pelluer was thrust into the starting role as freshman and has been a leader since. The Pelluers are to football what the Bushes and Clintons are to politics. Pelluer is poised to have as successful a career as any of his relatives.
Frankie Luvu, junior. 6-2, 239. Luvu will quickly garner a reputation among fans as the team’s hardest hitter. He might do well to save the hits for WSU’s opponents, however.
Waiting in the wings: The depth at inside backer took a hit when Chandler Leniu left the program during the offseason, but Paris Taylor knows what he’s doing and Suliasi Tamaivena is promising.
Inside linebacker depth grade: B-
Outside linebackers: Dylan Hanser, junior. 6-4, 230. The rangy Hanser is one of the best athletes on the team, and his straight-line speed is ideal for the Rush linebacker position.
Parker Henry, senior. 5-11, 203. Few players are near the ball more often than Henry, which is what makes him so successful at WSU’s nickel back position.
Waiting in the wings: While WSU does not have much game experience at Rush linebacker, Logan Tago and Nnamdi Oguayo are some of the team’s best athletes. Behind Henry, WSU has a number of solidly-built defensive backs who could slide over to nickel.
Cornerbacks: Darrien Molton, sophomore. 5-10, 173. Molton is a smooth coverage player, who started 11 games as a true freshman last season.
Marcellus Pippins, junior. 5-10, 170. Pippins is one of the defense’s vocal leaders. He’s got good recovery ability and frequently makes big plays at the last possible second.
Waiting in the wings: Charleston White has started in the past and took lots of reps with the first unit during spring ball. Treshon Broughton is also game ready.
Safeties: Shalom Luani, senior. 6-0, 198. Luani is a hawk in coverage and a good bet to earn at least all-conference honors this year.
Jalen Thompson, freshman. 6-0, 176. Asking a true freshman to start at safety is a risk, but Thompson showed up early for spring practice and didn’t give the coaches much of a choice.
Waiting in the wings: If junior college transfer Robert Taylor can play right away, it allows the coaches to bring Thompson along more slowly. Charleston White has experience at safety.
Secondary depth grade: A
Erik Powell, junior. 6-1, 195. Has 15 starts to his name and made all 49 extra points last season, along with 20 of his 26 field-goal attempts.
Zach Charme, sophomore. 6-1, 188. Averaged 39.6 yards per punt as a true freshman last season.
Specialists depth grade: B
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