Gabe Marks’ bravado. River Cracraft’s stoic competence. Joe Salave’a’s arms. The Washington State football team must replace some of its most recognizable features before the 2017 season.
That effort will begin in earnest on Thursday when the team holds the first of its spring football practices.
The practices will be held on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays leading up to the team’s Crimson and Gray Game at Spokane’s Joe Albi Stadium on April, 22nd. The weekday practices are held at 2:30 p.m., while practice times for Saturdays, when the team will hold its scrimmages, have not yet been announced.
Leach held a confernce call with members of the media on Wednesday to preview spring practices.
First on Leach’s list of concerns is replacing two starting offensive linemen. Center Riley Sorenson and right guard Eduardo Middleton have graduated, leaving a void in the middle of WSU’s line. The position battle at right guard will be something to monitor this spring and likely into the fall, but it appears the coaches know what they want to do at center.
Frederick Mauigoa impressed the coaches enough to play as a true freshman in 2016. So, the true sophomore is not totally lacking in experience despite his youth.
“He’s not operating from a vacuum,” Leach said. “He’s had a lot of reps with both quarterbacks and he’s done a good job. The spring is very important to Fred but we’re a lot further down that path than perhaps it appears on the outside.”
More obvious to fans is the hole created by the departures of Cracraft and Marks, the only teammates in Pac-12 history to each catch more than 200 passes in their careers. The Cougars prepared for their departure by signing a pair of physically daunting, highly-regarded freshman pass-catchers last year.
Mike Leach seems pleased with the development of Isaiah Johnson-Mack (6-foot-3, 216-pounds), who played extensively last season. But he wants to see more consistency from Dezmon Patmon (6-foot-4, 207-pounds), who played early in the year but fell into the depth.
“(Patmon is) good physically but he’s got to put it all together effort-wise,” Leach said. “Sometimes he puts it together.”
The departure of safety Shalom Luani will also be felt by the Cougars. Luani was the glue of the defense the last two years, making big plays and filling in where needed, even playing linebacker at times to be involved in more plays. Leach does not seem especially concerned about finding a replacement, however, saying the Cougars have a lot of talented players at the safety position.
Another player who saw the field his first year on campus last year was defensive end Derek Moore. If Moore can grow into an impact player this off-season it will make first-year defensive line coach Jeff Phelps’ job considerably easier.
“He quietly had one of the best freshmen years in the conference,” said Leach while praising Moore’s consistency.
Of course, the spring practices are not the first step the Cougars have taken toward building their 2017 team. They are just the first step open to the public and media. The Cougars and their coaches have been working out practically since the last season ended, away from the watchful gaze of anyone but those intimately associated with the program during a series of workouts known as “Midnight Maneuvers.”
“It was the best Midnight Maneuvers we’ve had,” Leach said. It was the best cohesive effort we’ve had in Midnight Maneuvers. I really don’t have anything but positives to say about Midnight Maneuvers.”
If Leach can say something similar a month from now on the field of Joe Albi the Cougars will be well on their way to a successful 2017 campaign.
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