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Tempers heat up in Lewiston … and other observations from the fifth day of WSU camp

UPDATED: Sun., Aug. 6, 2017

Washington State’s Robert Valencia (73) was in the middle of a shoving match with defensive end Hercules Mata’afa during an intense fifth practice of fall camp. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State’s Robert Valencia (73) was in the middle of a shoving match with defensive end Hercules Mata’afa during an intense fifth practice of fall camp. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

LEWISTON – The temperatures cooked and so did the tempers Sunday afternoon as Washington State logged its fifth day of fall camp and third at Sacajawea Junior High in Lewiston.

Through the first four days, Cougar players remained relatively even-keeled, engaging in good, hard-nosed competition without ever reaching a tipping point. But a few of the shoving matches that tend to happen after the play is blown dead lasted a little longer on Sunday.

The one that caught most everyone’s eye was between backup right guard Robert Valencia and starting defensive end Hercules Mata’afa during the team period. After tangling with Valencia, Mata’afa tore off his helmet and threw his arms into the lineman’s chest. When Valencia returned the favor, defensive players rushed over to back up Mata’afa and offensive players came to the aid of their guy.

The skirmishes usually mean that competition is high and coaches often welcome them – so long as they’re brief and don’t disrupt the flow of practice.

“They better get about their business pretty quick, or I’ll just put them on the next field and roll them or something,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “Because everybody else is sitting there waiting. The first couple weeks I let it go some, then after that we tighten up on it.”

Following are other notes and observations from the fifth day of Cougar camp…

One person asked this, so I figure at least a few more are wondering: What’s the status of Logan Tago? Tago, after serving time in jail and receiving an indefinite suspension because of felony and misdemeanor charges dating back to last summer, has made a return in full. It seemed as though he’d be in the mix at rush linebacker, but Tago has instead shifted to the defensive line. As it currently stands, he probably won’t start, but I’d expect Tago to play meaningful reps this fall.

The question marks on the offensive line have all but been erased. Frederick Mauigoa has the center job in hand and B.J. Salmonson is playing exclusively with the ones at right guard after it seemed he’d have to endure a position battle with Robert Valencia. Left guard Cody O’Connell, left tackle Andre Dillard and right tackle Cole Madison round out the first-string offensive line. The second-stringers appear to be: at center Noah Osur-Myers, at right guard Valencia, at left guard Cedric Bigge-Duren, at left tackle Liam Ryan and at right tackle Josh Watson.

Inside receiver Robert Lewis returned to practice Sunday after missing Saturday with an illness.

The Cougars will eventually have to whittle down their long list of kcik returners, but on Sunday, Robert Taylor, “Tay” Martin, Renard Bell, Travell Harris, Keith Harrington, James Williams and Skyler Thomas got practice.

Both the offense and defense had nice moments throughout the session, which is precisely what Leach wants to see – rather than one unit dominating the other. “You’re kinda looking for more consistent effort out of both sides,” he said. “You don’t want one side to massively get the upper hand. I thought we’ve had too much of that (in the past). You don’t want defense to one day hammer the offense and the next day offense to hammer the defense.”

Freshman receiver Jamire Calvin has probably had the best camp of any WSU rookie so far. He showed good instincts on a crossing pattern into the end zone, initially watching the ball clank off of his hands before recovering to grab it on the second attempt.

Hunter Dale is still entrenched in a tough position battle with fellow nickel Kirkland Parker, but Dale earned himself a few more points during Sunday’s skeleton period when he crept over the middle and into Luke Falk’s passing lane, picking off the WSU starter and causing an eruption on the defensive sideline.

Freshman corner George Hicks III got on the interception board during “skelly” and boxed out the much-taller C.J. Dimry before watching the ball float into his hands. “George has a nose for the ball,” Leach said of Hicks afterward when asked to assess the team’s younger defensive backs. “Sometimes he’ll undercut it and be too aggressive and we get behind him, but he’s really quick, turns his hips good and finds the football.” Hicks spent a chunk of time with the second team, mainly because Marcus Strong replaced Marcellus Pippins on the first team.

Strong nearly picked off Tyler Hilinski near the end of skelly, but couldn’t make the squeeze and instead watched the ball fall right out of his paws. The defense won that period, by the way, 46-43 (don’t ask me how these things are scored).

Running back Jamal Morrow caught a ball from Tyler Hilinksi on a hitch route during the team period, then turned his defender and zipped through the middle of the field, running 70 yards for the score. To celebrate, the 5-foot-9 Morrow converted a layup through the uprights.

The defense left the last imprint on the team period. James “Boobie” Williams took an inside run up the middle, but linebacker Chima Onyeukwu aggressively pinned the tailback to the turf, forcing the ball to come out. The offense recovered, but it was easily the camp highlighlight for Onyeukwu.

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