PULLMAN – When Isaiah Johnson, Jalen Thompson and Justus Rogers arrived at Washington State in early January, it was their new teammates, not the coaches, who helped them get settled in the football program and adjusted to college life.
The spring semester starts about a month before national signing day, and Mike Leach and his staff spend most of that final frenzied push on the road, trying to fill out the 2016 class, some of which is already on campus.
Therefore, those three players who graduated high school early to enroll, and junior college transfer Garrett McBroom, were introduced and instructed on being a college football player by other players, and maybe some helpful graduate assistants or athletics staff, too.
“They’re not coming here with 25 freshmen,” Leach said. “So you’ve got to make sure you get the guys already on the team around them.”
Oddly enough, the player who traveled the farthest from home may have had the easiest time of it. Isaiah Johnson came all the way from Belle Glade, Florida, to play wide receiver at WSU. The Cougars already have three offensive skill players from the Sunshine State in Keith Harrington Kyrin Priester and Tavares Martin, who was Johnson’s teammate at Dwyer High, who quickly brought the freshman into their circle.
For the most part, the players determine whether or not they want to enroll early, and set the process in motion with their high school guidance counselors before committing to a school. As the practice becomes more common, and more guidance counselors become familiar with it, it has become easier for players to pull it off.
“I like guys who come early but if they want to finish up their senior year, they need to do it,” Leach said. “Because if you get a guy up here who’s homesick, you’re way better off if he would have stayed for his senior year and come in with the other guys. So they have to have the right mentality to do it.”
Rogers, a quarterback, has been shadowing Luke Falk since he arrived on campus. The conductor of Bellevue High’s famous Wing-T offense, Rogers must now learn an offense at the other end of the passing spectrum, so Falk has coached him through offseason passing workouts and debriefs him after team meetings.
Falk still occasionally tells him which receiver to hit during a drill that involves five quarterbacks all throwing to different players at the same time.
Rogers has not received many reps yet during spring practices, but says that’s not unexpected.
“I understood that coming here,” Rogers said. “The main thing for me is just absorbing everything, learn from the people in front of me and learn from what they do well and don’t do well.”
Rogers will have plenty of time to adapt. Falk, Peyton Bender and Tyler Hilinski are all firmly ahead of him on the quarterback depth chart. Johnson and Thompson, however, have been in the two-deeps since the start of spring practice, and appear very likely to play next season.
Thompson has made an immediate impact. The coaches were impressed by his ability in the weight room even before spring practice started. He intercepted two passes in his first college practice, nabbed two more in his second, and is firmly in the mix for playing time at safety.
Johnson has been a primary backup at outside receiver. At 6-foot-3, 214 pounds, he already has the size to play, and he’s been impressively physical during his catch-and-runs for a freshman.
The receiver, who caught 20 touchdown passes during his final two years at Dwyer, has only played in one full-pads college practice, and how much he plays next year will be determined by his ability to stay focused while adapting to life as a college student, all while practicing against much better players than he’s seen in the past.
“You can’t beat people off talent; you’ve got to really work the craft and get better every day, and beat people off technique,” Johnson said.
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