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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Nothing casual about WSU spring football

Mike Leach’s Cougars should win nine games, beat the Huskies and play for the Pac-12 championship if Jacob Thorpe’s predictions are accurate. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Mike Leach’s Cougars should win nine games, beat the Huskies and play for the Pac-12 championship if Jacob Thorpe’s predictions are accurate. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

PULLMAN – When searching for real world examples to illustrated the importance of maximum effort throughout a contest, or how little plays made early in a game can prove decisive in its conclusion, the Washington State football coaches have plenty of options from which to choose.

This team had four games decided in the final ticks of regulation, after all; three won thanks to last-second passes and one lost on a missed kick as the clock expired.

But WSU’s preferred anecdote recalls an instance that occurred far away from fans and TV cameras, with nothing at stake but pride, and perhaps a little bit of conditioning.

The Cougars were split up into teams by the strength coaches, doing some sort of daily competition. They were graded on results, but effort as well, and one day everyone graded out perfect except for a single player, who gave only 75 percent effort on a single sprint.

In an election such a slim margin would have demanded a recount, but football teams are not democracies, and the players’ entire squad had to suffer because he only gave almost perfect effort over the course of the workout.

So when the Cougars take the field on Thursday for their first spring football practice, be sure that Mike Leach will remind his players once again that the ability to maximize effort and gain the slim, necessary advantage in close games is a habit borne months earlier, during the dog days of practice.

“I don’t understand coaches who diminish spring,” Leach said. “Some are just full of hot air, but others are ‘well, we don’t want this. All I care about in spring is nobody gets injured, that’s it.’ Well, that’s crazy. We have a huge emphasis on spring.”

WSU holds its longest practice of the year during spring, taking the opportunities to get long looks at players who were relegated to scout team during the year, to see who has emerged from offseason workouts with newfound abilities, and to arm the veteran players with new skills and tools to hone during the summer months.

This spring is unlikely to have an air of audition in the manner of previous ones, since the Cougars return quarterback Luke Falk, top receiver Gabe Marks, an entire stable of running backs, and plenty of other key contributors.

Of course every position is up for grabs, the best players will play and all that, but the starters are starters for a reason, and it’s unlikely we’ll see a wave of incumbents unseated by upstarts (again, not talking about elections here).

The Cougars are instead in the enviable spot of having a few position battles that will receive heightened scrutiny, because many expect them to be a team for whom play at a couple positions could determine the margins between good and great, between conference contenders, pretenders or champions.

Joe Dahl is gone, and replacing Spokane’s All-Conference contribution to WSU’s offensive line is probably priority No. 1 this offseason. Leach seems enamored of Andre Dillard at Dahl’s left tackle spot, even more so now that the 290-pound Dillard no longer looks like a basketball player.

Running back presents one of the bigger challenges for the WSU offense, but only because the coaches have to figure out how to give adequate practice reps to four players, something Leach admits will be “kind of tough.”

The Cougars used three running backs last year Keith Harrington, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks but not by design.

“If you were to ask me among those three, who’s the best of those three, I would say ‘at what?’” said Leach. “If one of them can separate themselves over the others, he’s going to get more reps.”

James Williams, who redshirted last season, is just one more young running back with unique abilities the coaches will have to account for.

Furthermore, two new receivers coaches, Jamarcus Shephard on the inside and Dave Nichol on the outside, will get their first taste of coaching practice with the Cougars.

On defense there is a safety spot alongside Shalom Luani up for grabs, and some linebackers to be replaced. The Cougars lost a pair of all-conference defensive ends in Darryl Paulo and Destiny Vaeao, although Hercules Mata’afa was starting to demand more of their reps by the season’s end.

A few freshmen have already enrolled, and perhaps one or two of them can make a play for some meaningful minutes. Kyrin Priester will likely again be tough to stop in practice, but we won’t know if it will translate to games until Eastern Washington’s Sept. 3 visit.

But these issues are mostly minutiae, which the Cougars can focus on because the backbone of last year’s 9-4 team remains intact. WSU learned its lesson about the importance of details last season. Now that the Cougars know how to win close games, they can spend this spring ensuring that next year they won’t need to.

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