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Kirkland Parker and Hunter Dale in dead heat at nickelback … and three other position battles to watch throughout WSU camp

Among the position battles to watch during Washington State’s camp include rush linebacker, with Frankie Luvu, left, and Dylan Hanser the top contenders. (File / AP)

LEWISTON – The duel between competing Washington State nickelbacks Kirkland Parker and Hunter Dale is much more civil than one might think. Just hear Parker out.

“We just compete, compete, try to make each other better obviously,” he said. “It’s not like a hate thing. That’s my dude, so we just go, go, go. Keep each other going. I make a mistake, he makes a mistake, we try to lift each other up and just keep it going.”

That said, one will presumably make a few more mistakes throughout the next couple weeks, and the other will be the one starting against Montana State on Sept. 2 in the season opener.

As it stands, the duel between Parker and Dale is a dead heat. A few of the others are neck-and-neck, too. Below, we break down Parker vs. Dale and two other position battles to watch throughout the month of August:

Kirkland Parker vs. Hunter Dale - Nickel

It’s probably the most hotly-contested battle at the moment and one that swings not just on a daily basis, but seemingly every hour.

On Friday, Parker drifted into the middle of the field to pick off Tyler Hilinski before enthusiastically flinging the ball into the air. On Saturday, Dale made a wise move to bite on an errant pass from Luke Falk and wound up with the ball in his hands. Dale also sprung for a near-sack of Falk later on.

Neither Parker or Dale started a game for the Cougars last season and their numbers looked similar. Parker had 10 tackles and Dale had eight. OK, really similar: Parker had a half tackle for loss and so did Dale.

Here’s Mike Leach on the competition: “Both are playing harder and better than they every have, I think. Hunter had a really good offseason and is one of those guy’s that’s always lifting extra. And then Kirkland’s really been focused and he’s been a really explosive guy, too. So I think they’ve both been doing a lot of good stuff.”

In other words, keep watching…

Dylan Hanser vs. Frankie Luvu - Rush linebacker

Hanser previoulsy played at WILL linebacker for the Cougars, but moved to Rush when defensive coordinator Alex Grinch arrived three years ago. He also played a fair share of Rush at Central Catholic High in Billings, Montana, so it’s a natural fit.

Luvu spent a large chunk of 2016 at WILL and made just one start at Rush, against Colorado. So it’s been something of a crash course for the 6-foot-2, 235-pounder from Pago Pago.

“Obviously, so many of our guys – not just Frank – are interchangeable,” outside linebackers coach Roy Manning said. “That goes back to recruiting guys with speed and athleticism, you can kind of plug them where you want.”

Hanser didn’t participate in Friday’s practice, but returned Saturday to work with the No. 1 defense. My guess is he’d be the top choice right now, but Manning said the competition will “shake itself out” in a few weeks.

“I think I’m more of a speed guy than Frank is,” Hanser said. “Frank’s definitely stronger, he’s got a little more weight on than me. But I think we’re both similar … we’re both athletic, we both have good vision off the edge and our goal is to both make an impact.”

Maybe the Cougars go with Hanser to stymie the Pac-12’s smaller, shiftier running backs – Washington’s Myles Gaskin, for example – and Luvu for the league’s power backs, such as Oregon brickhouse Royce Freeman.

Isaiah Johnson-Mack vs. Dezmon Patmon - “Z” receiver

Either player would be strong choice if you needed somebody to win the opening tipoff of a basketball game.

Johnson-Mack stands 6-foot-3 and Patmon checks in a hair taller at 6-foot-4, but both have wheels that belie their long, lanky frames.

Saturday, Johnson-Mack dusted a defender by simply twisting his hips and springing free before streaking to the end zone to haul in Hilinski’s pass. In one of the final plays of the team period, Patmon waited some 10 seconds for a route in the red zone to develop before shaking his man and curling into the middle of the end zone where Falk had one of his signature spirals waiting.

It’s hard to tell who gets more reps this fall, but in an offense that netted 4,713 passing yards last year, both will have plenty of opportunities. And whichever way it shakes out, the guy tossing the ball will have a “Z” who’s both athletic and rangy.

“We had some big guys when I first got here in Vince (Mayle) and Dom (Williams),” Falk said. “Now we just have it from top to bottom. Really all our outside guys are monsters. I think the shortest is Tavares (Martin) and he’s 6-1.”

Here are a few other notes from day No. 4 of WSU camp…

– Wide receiver Robert Lewis missed the workout due to an “illness” according to Leach. Now, Leach typically isn’t one to leak injuries/illnesses, but the WSU coach conceded one to the media on Saturday. “That’s a good question,” he responded when asked where Lewis was. “Oh, oh, oh. Well, it’s early but illness. So that’s one time only, just in the spirit of fair play and I couldn’t think quickly enough on my feet. He’s ill today.”

– And another Leachism from the post-practice press session … I’d noticed the WSU coach signing a basketball for a young fan and figured I’d get a good response if I asked Leach about the most interesting thing he’s autographed. Enjoy: “The strangest thing I ever autographed? OK there’s this lady, older lady, and there was an autograph signing. There was a whole group and you could tell they’re all family. The kids were in their thirties or so. Grown kids. They’re laughing as they get up, kinda like they got a secret or inside joke. So I’m thinking, “Well what’s this?” And there’s this bra, and I mean, this bra is huge. The kid puts the bra on the table and goes, “Can you sign my mom’s bra?” and behind, there was this older lady laughing and being a good sport with her kids, and it was clearly her bra, OK? And I mean this bra was gigantic. So, anything for the fans, and of course I signed a bra. So mom and the kids had something to talk about I guess.”

– One lasting memory of Davontavean “Tay” Martin from Friday’s practice was the freshman wideout being put on his butt by senior cornerback Marcellus Pippins. On Saturday, it was the Houma, Louisiana, native making riveting play after riveting play and showing Cougar coaches why he should be a rotational player as just a rookie. Of course, it’s a tough group to crack with the depth and experience the WSU receivers have, but Martin made his case, burning fellow frosh George Hicks III to the end zone on one play in 7-on-7 and then taking Deion Singleton to task on another, slipping past the cornerback before tracking down a long, lofting ball from Tyler Hilinski.

– Twice in about a minute, Hicks was beat by a WSU receiver with the last name Martin. Tavares Martin shook the corner out of his shoes right after “Tay” Martin did and it proved an important learning opportunity for Hicks, who joins the Cougars out of Cajon High in San Bernardino, California. Multiple coaches, including defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and strength coach Jason Loscalzo, told Hicks to fix his body language and demeanor, and a few players offered encouragement. Hicks intercepted Hilinski later in the drill and earned praise from senior safety Robert Taylor: “Way to make up, baby,” he said.

Luke Falk was strangely out of his sync during the final offensive drive of the team period. He misread his receiver’s route in one instance and threw into the waiting arms of nickel Hunter Dale, then short-armed another attempt over the middle before watching the ball sail right into the grass. Falk on the struggles: “I think it starts with us not playing the next play. Got to bring the energy, got to just put the ball in play. You’ve just got to get the ball in play, whether it be a screen, whether it be a run, instead of just trying to go deep, deep, deep. And take some of the pressure off the O-line and the receivers and myself.”

– Another interesting position battle is the one at right guard between B.J. Salmonson and Robert Valencia. If you’ve been at Sacjawea the last two days, you’d probably ask “What position battle?” Salmonson seems to be the guy there, and is getting almost all of the first-team reps, but the senior assured me that the job hasn’t been won yet: “For me, it’s a position battle,” he said. “I still have everything to work on – technique – so for me, it could still go either way.”

– Some other highlight plays from practice No. 4: Near the end of the team period, Singleton stuck his body in front of Tavares Martin, allowing Falk’s pass to ricochet off Singleton’s body rather than into the hands of Martin. “What’s wrong with you, Luke?” the corner shouted to the quarterback, obviously questioning his decision to come his way … D-lineman Garrett McBroom made a strong pursuit of running back James Williams during the first play of Falk’s final drive and bludgeoned Williams as he was coming around the edge. Getting so much as a fingernail on Williams is hard to do at times, let alone stuffing him completely … Grant Porter aggressively stripped the ball from Isaiah Johnson-Mack during the 7-on-7 period and let everyone know about it … C.J. Dimry used his 6-foot-5 frame to snare a high pass over Darrien Molton in the left corner of the end zone during a skeleton drill … Falk later hit Dimry in the middle of the field through the tightest of windows, leaving a pair of hapless defenders shaking their helmets at the QB’s accuracy.

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