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Sports >  WSU football

Ask the experts: A Washington State-flavored Q&A with the analysts at the Pac-12 Networks

UPDATED: Fri., Aug. 18, 2017

Mike Yam and Curtis Conway of Pac-12 Networks. (Pac-12 Networks / Courtesy)
Mike Yam and Curtis Conway of Pac-12 Networks. (Pac-12 Networks / Courtesy)

PULLMAN – Every year, one Washington State practice winds up being much bigger of a production than the rest. A few more cameras are circling the perimeter of Martin Stadium and a crew of television personalities wearing navy polos are roaming the premises for a few hours.

The occasion? Pac-12 Networks day in Pullman.

On Thursday, Curtis Conway, Anthony Herron, Mike Yam, Yogi Roth and a handful of production assistants came to take in a practice at WSU and size up the 2017 Cougars. The crew will visit all 12 programs before the regular season starts.

Conway, Herron and Yam graciously gave 20 minutes of their time to answer questions about the Cougars. The experts of course are high on quarterback Luke Falk and the stable of running backs returning. It may come as more of a surprise that they expect the defensive line – WSU’s most scrutinized position group – to be disruptive. “They’re going to give people fits,” Herron said.

Below is a full transcript of the Q&A:

Who: Curtis Conway

Credentials: Pac-12 Networks studio analyst, First Team All-American at USC (1992), seventh pick of 1993 NFL draft, 11-year NFL receiver with Chicago, San Diego, New York (Jets) and San Francisco.

Who: Anthony Herron

Credentials: Pac-12 Networks studio analyst, former defensive lineman at Iowa, five-year NFL lineman with Detroit, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Atlanta.

Who: Mike Yam

Credentials: Pac-12 Networks host, football pregame/postgame show anchor, former ESPN SportsCenter anchor.

The Spokesman-Review: What were your first impressions after watching today’s session?

Curtis Conway: “Well, my first stop is wide receivers, just as a former wide receiver. But not only that, they lost (River) Cracraft and of course Gabe Marks, so you kind of say, ‘Who’s the next guy?’ I was pretty impressed. You know about (Tavares) Martin. I thought it was kind of going to be him and figure out the rest, but I thought they looked pretty good. About six guys, I wouldn’t say overly impressed, but guys I was like, ‘Hmm.’ They’ve got six guys who can line up right now and make an impact right away. Of course Martin – both Martins (Tavares and “Tay”), Isaiah (Johnson-Mack) and then Jamire (Calvin) looked really good today. You’ve got little Robert and then of course Sweet. So they’ve got some guys that definitely can make some plays, so starting there I was pretty impressed.”

SR: Anybody in that group of six that especially stood out from the rest?

CC: “I think Johnson-Mack was on one today. I don’t know what he’s been doing the whole camp, but if he was doing anything like what he was doing today, he was really impressive. Physical down there in the red zone, catching the ball, was getting off the ball. Because most guys can run routes against off coverage. For me, I like to look at guys versus press and he was really impressive catching the ball with somebody right there on him. Showing his physical side, too. So I was really impressed with him and then Jamire, you know being a true freshman and coming out here. I don’t think he got beaten one time today and everybody pretty much caught everything that was thrown to them.”

SR: Any other takes on the receivers?

Anthony Herron: “The difference they had between some of the bigger receivers versus the little guys who are going to play in the slot. That’s where Luke Falk’s experience is going to end up showing during the season, because he’s got the ability now to find particular matchups on the field and take advantage of. It’s one thing to step out on this game field and do it, but to be able to start focusing on it in practice where some of the younger guys like a Jamire Calvin who hadn’t really played slot before, he was an outside guy even though he was small in his offense in high school, but to see how Jamire can start to work inside. I saw Luke pulling several guys aside during practice today, just kind of talking to them about spacing and timing and changing their speeds and routes and some of those things that the newer guys don’t have as much of a feel for that. But the timing in this offense is so important, for all the receivers, as deep as they are, to be on the same page with Luke is what’s going to end up putting a lot of points on the board because he’s got to be able to trust they’re going to be at the spot they need to be at the time they’re going to be.”

SR: Marks and Cracraft were the security blankets last year. Does WSU need someone to step into that role this year?

AH: “I don’t think it needs to be any one particular receiver, I think maybe two years ago that would’ve needed to be the case. But because of what they’ve done in using the running backs more and more in this offense the last couple of season, then (Gerard) Wicks can be the safety valve, or (James) Williams can be your safety valve. You have the ability now to either dump it off to a running back, or when Luke sees a certain front from the defensive front seven, to be able to just check it to a run play. So that was something they weren’t doing as much a few seasons back that’s going to make a big difference for their offense. Because we saw when they got the run going, when they had the consecutive victories going last season, it was because by estimation – it was something me and Curtis were talking about on the air a lot, with Mike Leach’s offense, when they actually include the running backs. And not just in the passing game, but turning around and handing it off, that ends up making a big difference. Because it balances out how the defense is going to play you within the box and what they’re doing outside. Their attention span can’t be just narrowed to always focusing on covering your receivers, so that safety valve doesn’t necessarily have to be any one receiver because of how much they use the running backs now.”

SR: Speaking of the running backs, how much do you see WSU going to them? Can an Air Raid offense use them even more than they did last season?

Mike Yam: “I just think it’s really funny because as soon as you were asking about sort of that safety valve, that’s the first thing that I thought of. I’m glad Anthony actually brought that up because when we’re on our set, that’s something we consistently talk about. Some of those safety guys, the running backs. Mike Leach, once again, we talk about it a lot. The perception of lack of running game, but they’re utilizing them. If you watch this team a season ago, the amount of yards that those guys are getting and it might not just be your typical handoff to the guy, whoever’s in that backfield and see him go. But that dumpoff pass where those guys are able to pick up yardage, it depends on the personnel. Williams, to me, watching him today, seemed like that he’s kind of their standout guy. I know obviously (Jamal) Morrow is a guy and Wicks and they have that experience, but I think we even saw that burst a season ago. But to me, Williams I thought was clearly their standout guy.”

SR: It’s another year where the Pac-12 is stacked with quarterbacks. Where do you stick Luke Falk into that hierarchy of Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Jake Browning? What he does he do better than those three? What can he work on?

AH: “Precision. That to me is one thing that separates Luke from some of the other top quarterbacks in the conference. Jake Browning, he’s a guy who operates on precision also. Luke is more of a volume passer than Jake is within this system. But Sam Darnold at USC, Sam doesn’t really – there’s plays that call for him to be precise, but a lot of his stuff ends up happening, the highlight moments are where he’s going off-script, where he’s getting outside the pocket, he’s extending plays. You don’t really see Luke needing to do a lot of that and that’s not really what this system is built around. But the precision that he delivers the ball with, the accuracy he does it with, that’s what separates him from quarterbacks not just in the Pac-12, but all around the country.”

SR: You often see Falk and other Leach QBs labeled as “system quarterbacks.” Is that a fair label? Could Falk thrive in most offenses?

AH: “I don’t know about most offenses, but I think there’s a lot of quarterbacks with huge arms who wouldn’t thrive in this system. So I think Mike Leach has gotten that question so much over the years that I understand why it may annoy him a little bit at times. But I think it’s completely fine to consider Luke Falk a system quarterback for this system. I think it’s great to picture Sam Darnold as a system quarterback for what they do at USC and what happens at UCLA, what Jake Browning does in Chris Petersen’s system. Because all these offenses are different and all require different things of the quarterback. Luke Falk has been stellar in the Air Raid system. Every year he’s been here and he’s actually gotten better every season he’s been in it. Not just because of the passing numbers, but because of what Mike Leach allows him to do pre-snap and how he surveys the defense. So he’s as precise as he needs to be and he does as much pre-snap as any quarterback in the country. And coach Leach trusts him to do that because he’s been the starter here for several years.”

SR: How about Cody O’Connell? You guys have been touring the conference, have you seen anyone bigger than No. 76?

AH: “Now that Zach Banner (of USC) is gone, Cody O’Connell is the biggest land mass in the conference by far. There’s nobody else as big as him and normally you wouldn’t see a guy as a guard with that much kind of vertical girth, being 6-8, 6-9. But he makes it work. He plays with leverage, he gets under guys’ pads and he’s been part of the reason why the run game has started to thrive in this system.”

SR: Defensively, the Cougars look to be much smaller than most everyone else in the conference. Can they still make strides on that side of the ball this year?

AH: “They’re going to give people fits. They’re going to give people a lot of fits. Because you’ve got a guy who’s only about 250 pounds in Hercules Mata’afa, who they don’t just need to bring him off the edge. They can move him inside to nose, he can be a three technique. So they can move him all around the defensive front. But then you’ve got Daniel Ekuale who’s put on 15 pounds, but watching the way he moves now, how he flips his hips and can get through gaps. And then even some of the younger guys like Nnamdi Oguayo, who hasn’t really been a part of what they’ve done so far. But to see the growth, because I called the spring game for the Pac-12 Network, to see his growth from the spring to the fall, he’s going to be a big part of what they do in getting into the opposing backfield over and over again. So they’re just deep. And again, like we talk about the system with the wide receivers, probably these D-linemen may not be able to what they do in this system in a lot of other systems. But it works because of what Alex Grinch does and it causes the opponent to have to plan for it on film in a way that not a lot of other teams have to game plan for an opposing defense.”

SR: Aside from the household names – Mata’afa, Pelluer, etc. – who are some of the other defensive guys that will impress viewers this year?

CC: “No one really I would say stood out. I thought it was a pretty sound defense. And I think that’s something this defense has really thrived on the last few years is everybody playing together. I know when I talked to Aex a few years ago, that was one of the things he wanted to do was everybody playing on the same accord. And so watching them, I didn’t really get a chance to focus on them doing individuals because that’s when I can kind of separate a guy. So when they start doing more team stuff, that’s when I kind of zoomed in on the defense. But I kind of agree with Anthony when you talk about the defense because this team gets so much attention on the offensive side of the ball. I mean I think this is going to be a defense where I would say not here, but across the college spectrum, is a little underappreciated. I think that this defense is the reason this team took a step in the right direction and you can still see clearly the way they’re playing together. I was just talking to one of the coaches earlier, I’m like, ‘Man, you guys are getting after it in practice.’ He was like, ‘Man, we have to.’ And I think because of the lack of size that you see, they’re really focused on speed and I think Alex has the right idea when you’re playing in the Pac-12, you need guys that can tackle in space. It’s not the SEC where you need that big 240-pound linebacker. You need that guy that’s about 215, 220 that can run and even cover for that matter. Watching Hunter Dale covering the slot. A guy like that could find himself playing like a weakside linebacker position just because of the conference that you’re in. That’s kind of what he could be. I can’t even think of the guy’s name from Colorado, (Chidobe) Awuzie. He was a guy who could step in the box and kind of ply that strong safety role but also cover. So he was a guy I really wanted to watch just to se. Because to me in this conference, that’s a really key position on defense. When you talk about playing against Pac-12 quarterbacks.”

SR: Which of the 12 WSU games are you most looking forward to?

CC: “It’s funny because the SC game, I just know when we traveled to Corvallis, when we traveled to Pullman for some reason it’s like we’re not the same team. SC’s not the same team. And again, this is a team where defensively it can be sneaky. SC, as much as we talk about Sam Darnold, they still have some guys they have to fill. They lost both of their tackles, is Sam Darnold going to be that comfortable enough with the receivers to where if he is feeling pressure – ‘You know what, OK I’ve got Juju (Smith-Schuster) over there, I can just throw it up.’ Well Juju’s not over there anymore. Will one of those give him that confidence to do that. That’s going to be an interesting situation, especially playing here on the road. That’s kind of the game I have circled because that’s really going to be a good measuring stick for Washington State.”

MY: “I think the SC one really stands out. I think there’s a really good chance that the Apple Cup could decide the division again, which I think is cool just for the in-state rivalry. Oregon State, what that’s week three. (Anthony) is going to be on the call for that one. We got an opportunity to see those guys in Corvallis. To me, I think that’s a great game just based off what we’ve seen from them and seen what that team likes to do. I think Washington State’s probably a better football team than they are right now. That said, I think Oregon State is probably better than I think most Pac-12 fans would consider them at this point because of some of the struggles. But I think they’re knocking on the door for a bowl this season and I think the conference would be on notice if they’re able to pull off a win like that.”

AH: “To me, starting off with an FCS team where they’ve been losing to FCS teams the last couple of years.”

MY: “We should just kind of circle that one.”

CC: “Start out there.”

AH: “It’s got to be. Because what’s happened with the Cougars the last couple of years is they’ve lost to the FCS foe early in the season, then everybody just stops paying attention to them. And then you look up during the conference schedule and they’re just ringing off victories over good Pac-12 teams. If they can start fast this year, if they beat the FCS team week one, beat Boise State week two, then they go into week three with an early conference matchup – earlier than they would normally play a conference game – if they’re not ranked going into Oregon State, then maybe you get a conference victory and we could see Washington State ranked early in the season this year as opposed to they’ve got to start ringing off conference victories and you’re in late October before people actually realize this is a good football team. To me, they’ve got to start fast. Don’t even blow out the FCS foe, just get a win in that game, then you’re going to have a good Boise State team you’re going to face from there. But that to me can put Washington State on the map earlier this season. Especially as experienced as this team is, everybody knows about Luke Falk, everybody knows about the receivers, everybody knows about Alex Grinch and this defense. This is a team that before September, can be in the national rankings if they play their cards right.”

CC: “It’s funny you mention that because the coach I was just talking to, that was one of the things he said. That first game is our Super Bowl. It’s not, but just for those reasons. It’s like, we’ve got to get over that hump. So just dittoing what you said, it’s definitely key.”

SR: Can it be easy to overthink and overplay in a game like that?

CC: “Oh yeah. Yeah I think naturally you do. I mean I think any player would be lying if they said they didn’t, but it’s the coaches job to kind of ring you in and I think that’s where they are. They understand that’s probably been the reason things haven’t been the way they should be, so I think this year that’s kind of the focus. Look, let’s really get after this first one. And to Anthony’s point, you get in conference because I really think that they can compete in this conference. But now you have national eyeballs on you, versus just Pac-12 fans looking at you. Once you can gain that national respect, then that’s a whole different level.”

SR: Of course, UW is a hurdle the Cougars probably have to get over to reach the Pac-12 championship game. What would need to happen for WSU to get there?

AH: “Well to me, I think Washington State’s the second best team in the North. No disrespect to Stanford, they’ve still got questions at quarterback. Don’t know what’s happening between Keller Chryst there and whether or not Ryan Burns can really round into form, assuming he is going to have to start early in the season. To me, Washington State, we know they’ve got a D-line, they’ve got experience coming back at linebacker, Luke Falk is a proven commodity, all kinds of weapons at receiver. Running back experience, offensive line. This was a team that was in the conference championship picture by the end of the season last year. To me, there’s more unknown and uncertain about Stanford than there is about Washington State. This to me, it’s Washington’s North division so they to me are head and shoulders above the rest of the North, but if it’s not going to be the Dawgs, I’m staying within the state of Washington. To me, the Cougs would be my No. 2 choice.”

CC: “I’ve got (Stanford) a notch above just because of defensively, I think they match up against this offense well. When you look at their secondary, I think that’s a team that knowing Luke Falk is not a runner, they can line up and play man to man with these outside guys and really get after the quarterback. And it’s going to come down to two days. Keller, who’s going to be the quarterback and can Bryce Love really take over? We all know what Christian McCaffrey brought to that offense. That was one of those no-brainers. OK, figure out a way to get him the rock. Now you don’t have that. When I watch Bryce, it’s hard not to fall in love with him because you think he can do some of the same things but yet can he carry the load and now you’re thinking, OK they’re going to need that second guy. You’re really going to see how much he meant. So that’s kind of the question mark for me. I think if that quarterback position can really come around, I think they can definitely do some things. But I think defensively, especially in the secondary, I think they can match up. I mean they can almost beat a Washington this year when you talk about guys like Kevin King and Budda Baker and those guys in the secondary that can lock up. I think they have those kind of guys that they can line up on the outside and for me, as a wide receiver when you watch tape, if you’ve got corners like Meeks and Holder that can hold up on the outside, you can do so much more in the middle. So that’s kind of where I’m leaning with Stanford just kind of seeing what they can do defensively. Because I know with this (WSU) offense, if you can slow them down point wise you’ve got a chance.”

MY: “I agree with a lot of the things Curtis was saying. On the defensive side, the biggest thing for me is – I think it’s a razor-thin edge as of right now, but the reason I would still lean toward Stanford is because of that team identity. I think if you look to a season ago in the Pac-12 championship game, for as much as people want to talk about offense and how sexy that is, the two teams in Colorado and Washington – the reason why they were playing in the championship game was because both of those teams’ identities, for as good as their offenses were, still circled on those defenses. You look at the NFL Draft, both of those teams littered the draft because of guys that were taken and playing on the defensive side of the football. So for me, that’s why I give Stanford the edge. I think the one thing that potentially puts Washington State above them is if Alex Grinch continues to develop these guys size-wise. Especially to me, I look at Washington State right now and compare them to some of the other teams. They don’t look as big. They do look really fast. I just look at Stanford and to me that’s known commodities on defense and that’s why right now, before we’ve even played a game, I give them the slight edge. But after a few weeks, who knows with an injury here or an injury there, we could be talking about a very different landscape of that North division. But I think it’s really close right now, but I’ve still got to leave Stanford because of the defense.”

SR: Prediction time.

MY: “I don’t think there is a step down. I think to the point Curtis was talking about, we were talking about wide receivers. It does feel like almost interchangeable parts with what they’re working with. So I don’t think there’s a dropoff there. You just hope there’s a continuing development for that defense. That’s why I circle back to that, to me I think it’s still right in that same range, and I hate to point to that but an injury here or there could really dramatically alter some of those totals I think around the conference.”

CC: “I don’t think you have a dropoff just because of the experience you have coming back and I don’t think when you look at Washington, of course Washington is the team. I think it’s going to come down to that Apple Cup. With the Stanford situation, if that goes in their way because Washington lost a lot in the secondary and I don’t think there’s as much of a dropoff if any. I don’t think there’s a dropoff here at receiver as much as there is at Washington at corner. You’ve got to understand, when Washington plays these guys and you’ve got Sidney Jones and Kevin King and you’re playing against a team like this, he can do a lot. I don’t see those same guys out there, which means gameplanning against this team that late, those guys haven’t stepped up. You’re going to see a different defense. Now I do love what they have, interior D-line and they’ve got some dudes, but record wise it’s a little tough. I don’t see a dropoff. I’m a big fan of Alex Grinch and what he’s been able to do with the defense considering – and nothing against the players – but considering what he had to come in here and turn around. So a lot of respect to him and what he’s capable of doing. And again, no John Ross over here so… You’ve got to take two guys no matter where he goes and follow him. So it’s going to be interesting to see. As much as I love Washington, right now I’m not a huge fan of the offense right now. I do like a few guys and I think they’ve got some dudes, but I’ve been in offenses where, like I said, as soon as you play your game on Saturday, you’ve got Washington and you’re trying to figure out, OK John Ross, what two guys are we going to send to slow him down. Which does a lot to your defense and helps everyone out on the defense. So I think it’s going to be interesting.”

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