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Washington State’s defensive line took heat, now looks to bring its own

Washington State’s Hercules Mata’afa (50), a two-year starter at defensive end, had a team-high five sacks a year ago. (File / AP)

PULLMAN – Mike Leach philosophy states that every position is up for grabs all the time.

For the Washington State coach, it’s a subtle way of reminding his veterans that jobs aren’t won based on clout, accolades or last year’s numbers. And it’s a way to tell his youngsters that the “freshman” on their athletic bio is nothing more than a label if they can prove their worth on the practice field.

Of course, Leach gets the occasional sideways glance from reporters when he alleges that even fourth-year starting quarterback Luke Falk is still fighting for his spot. And sure, it’s hard to imagine the offensive line without consensus All-American Cody O’Connell starting at left guard, or a linebacker corps without all-conference selection Peyton Pelluer starting at the Mike position.

Granted, those three also happen to be a few of WSU’s hardest laborers – hence their clout, their accolades and their lofty numbers.

Falk, O’Connell and Pelluer will surely be at the front of the depth chart when the Cougars open against Montana State on Sept. 2. And they represent just a small portion of the returning talent this particular WSU team boasts. The Cougars, return seven starters on offense, nine on defense and two on special teams. That makes them the Pac-12’s most experienced club.

There aren’t a ton of mysteries, but here’s a few positions to keep an eye on as the Cougars travel to Lewiston to continue fall camp on Friday:

Defensive line

The defensive front took heat for its relative inability to take down the quarterback last year. The Cougars notched 20 sacks and were better than only two teams in the Pac-12: Cal and Oregon State, though neither the Golden Bears nor Beavers played in a bowl game.

The line loses just one major contributor, Rober Barber, and Barber’s senior season was cut by three games because of legal hurdles.

Defensive end Hercules Mata’afa is the group’s anchor, and the junior looked especially spry Thursday during a D-line vs. O-line drill, blasting past O’Connell a few times to “sack” the QB.

“I like going against Cody because he’s big, he’s got long arms and that’s like the typical O-line size in the NFL,” Mata’afa said after practice. “So the more work I get with him, the better I’ll be.”

Daniel Ekuale, a strong run-plugger, also showed impressive push throughout the drill. Teammates and coaches believe he’s better equipped to get to the quarterback this season and if Thursday’s practice was any indication, they’re spot on.

“He’s a bigger dude, so he’s more of a run-stopper, but I see him getting better with his pass-rush,” Mata’afa said of Ekuale.

End Nnamdi Oguayo rounded out the first group, but D-line coach Jeff Phelps said Garrett McBroom, Kingston Fernandez, Nick Begg and Derek Moore give the Cougars “a great support group.”

“We’ve got a lot of depth and we have to make sure we stay healthy,” Phelps said. “But they’re flying around and they’re looking good.”

Running back

Most expect that the Cougars will have a three-headed, six-legged monster in the backfield this season with Jamal Morrow, James Williams and Gerard Wicks all back on campus.

But for that to happen, Wicks might have to elevate his game a notch. Otherwise, it’ll be a two-headed, four-legged … well, never mind, it’ll just be something.

Per Leach, “our two top guys right now are James and Jamal.”

“We’re going to have to narrow them down,” he added.

Morrow’s been his steady self through two days and Williams was one of the most valuable Cougars on Wednesday, hauling in a pass from Falk on a shoot route into the end zone. The offense ran another goal-line set on the very next play and Williams took a shovel pass from Falk before bouncing around the edge into the end zone.

Williams wouldn’t mind seeing a few more shovels this fall.

“Usually when we do a shovel pass, they don’t see it coming,” he said.

As is the case for much of the defense, separation among running backs doesn’t usually happen until the pads come on. Which serves as a reminder: The Cougars will have two days of shoulder pads – Friday and Saturday at Lewiston’s Sacajawea Junior High – before going full pads Sunday.

Expect for Morrow, Williams and Wicks – Keith Harrington, too – to all get carries this fall. For now, Morrow and Williams will be getting most of the meaningful ones.

Wide receiver

Inside and outside, the Cougars are talented. You’d be hard-pressed to find a group of Leach receivers that isn’t.

Tavares Martin Jr. seemingly has one of the outside jobs sewn up, but to sort the other one out, we might need a fight to the death between Dezmon Patmon and Isaiah Johnson-Mack. Both have left an imprint on the first two days – Patmon was excellent on Wednesday and Johnson-Mack made some highlight grabs on Thursday.

And at 6-foot-5, C.J. Dimry certainly can’t be ignored. He’ll be on the field plenty.

“On the outside, man those guys can run a little bit,” said Dave Nichol, who’s coached the outside receivers at WSU since 2015, but will work with the inside receivers this fall. “They’re big. They should be big playmakers. That’s the biggest thing, is get them consistent.”

Kyle Sweet is getting a bulk of the reps at the “Y” and Robert Lewis is a thing at the “H.” But the Cougars have depth inside, too, with players like Jamire Calvin and Easop Winston Jr.