Breakout performances are part of the formula that makes college football such an exciting attraction for its fans and followers. Every season, nearly every team has a player, or multiple players, who make their biggest strides a year or two earlier than expected and take on a starring role almost overnight.
Those stories have come in bunches at Washington State.
Last year, it was right guard Cody O’Connell who emerged from practically nowhere to earn consensus All-American honors after arguably the best season in history by an offensive lineman at WSU. Two years ago, it was Peyton Pelluer – the long-haired, hard-hitting linebacker – who turned heads, more than doubling his tackle numbers en route to nabbing all-league recognition. Three years ago, it was a former walk-on quarterback who played admirably in a relief role, making only three starts, but still throwing for 1,859 yards and 13 touchdowns. Luke Falk is now on pace to become the top passer in school history.
Here are five players who could break out for the Cougars in 2017:
Tavares Martin Jr. – “X” receiver
Quarterbacks don’t like to pick favorites. Or so they say… Last season, Luke Falk completed 443 passes. Gabe Marks was on the receiving end 89 times and was also the only Cougar receiver with more than 70. The next most productive WSU receiver? That was Martin, with 64 receptions. He’s done answering questions about who’s going to replace Marks – Martin is just ready to do it. You could argue that the junior broke out in 2016, when he bumped his receiving totals by 604 yards and caught six more touchdowns than he did the season before. But with all the catches that are available now, this could be the year Martin hauls in 75 balls and 10-plus TDs. And with Marks out of the picture, all-conference accolades could come his way, too.
Kyle Sweet – “Y” receiver
The Cougars are simply replacing one inside receiver from Santa Margarita High with another. Well, it’s not quite that straightforward. Line up every receiver in WSU history and only Marks had a more prolific career than River Cracraft, the “Y” receiver who hands his starting duties over to Sweet. The junior could now become Falk’s inside receiver of choice – Robert Lewis will make a case for himself – one season after leading the team with 13.2 yards per catch. Sweet has the blue-collar work ethic that made Cracraft such a force for the Cougars and he finds nifty ways to get yards after the catch, even without the afterburners that Lewis or Martin have.
Daniel Ekuale – nose tackle
At 6-foot-3, 305 pounds, Ekuale’s always been proficient at stopping the run. That was also the case for the defense as a whole last season, when the Cougars ranked third in the Pac-12 with just 134.2 rushing yards allowed per game. But what both Ekuale and WSU lacked in 2016 was any type of urgency to get to the quarterback. New defensive line coach Jeff Phelps has moved that to the top of his to-do list and Ekuale could reap the benefits of the brand new tactics being taught up front. Teammates are already seeing big strides from the Pago Pago native. “He’s been really getting on with the pass-rush,” Hercules Mata’afa said. There’s been evidence of that already: Ekuale had two QB sacks in WSU’s spring game.
Hunter Dale – nickel
Dale played a backup role last season, and he’s still in the midst of a position battle with Kirkland Parker, but the experience he gained playing behind Parker Henry should serve him well. Dale is an instinctual player who brings a savvy to the position that maybe even Henry lacked and he’s shown a nose for the ball through the first week of fall camp, making life tough on the Cougar quarterbacks during skeleton and team periods. Dale made eight tackles in 13 appearances last season, but his numbers should balloon with extended field time this fall and don’t be surprised to see the junior come up with a few takeaways as well.
Erik Powell – kicker
Over the years, WSU fans have seen far too many of Powell’s kicks soar to the left or right of the uprights. He’s 31-of-46 on field goals in three seasons and still hasn’t converted from 50 yards or longer. And don’t dare bring up a certain game against Stanford from two years back. That’s a Cardinal sin around these parts. But Powell’s now a fifth-year senior and it’s hard to imagine him getting less accurate with all the reps – both mental and in-game – he’s had as a three-year starter. Yes, those crucial misses still sting, but Powell still has the muscle to make almost any kick and he could be poised for a superb season if he can put all the missing pieces together. “He’s got the range to hit it as far as anybody,” Mike Leach said.
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