Washington State held a ramp-up practice on Thursday, the first of 15 spring football practices that will crescendo to the Crimson and Gray Game at Albi on April 22 but conclude the following Tuesday.
The NCAA places quite a few mandates on what the Cougars can do with their spring practices. There are rules about how much hitting there can be, how often the Cougars are allowed to scrimmage, and a rule saying that the first practice must be helmets-only.
So Thursday was just a taste of what to expect from the Cougars as they prepare for the offseason that will propel them into the 2017 season. Here are five questions, the answers to which will help determine how good the Cougars can be in the fall.
1. What’s going on at right guard?
Despite the graduation of longtime starter Eduardo Middleton, the Cougars have experience at right guard thanks to the presence of B.J. Salmonson, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound senior they have plugged in for years whenever there is a temporary absence along the line.
Salmonson will get his chance to start his final year but will be pushed by junior college transfer Robert Valencia, a 6-6, 295-pound junior who arrived in time to participate in spring football. There are also some large redshirt freshmen like Cedric Bigge-Duren (6-6, 322) and Keenen King (6-4, 324) who could factor into the mix.
2. Which 2016 redshirts are ready to roll?
Speaking of redshirts, the Cougars have a number of players who will be asked to contribute after spending 2016 incubating as redshirts. Grant Porter and Renard Bell will both be challenged to show they can help replace River Cracraft’s production at inside receiver. While the Cougars seem set at running back, position coach Jim Mastro said he is excited by what scatback Romello Harris adds to the unit.
On defense, indications were during scrimmages for underclassmen that Jahad Woods will be a prominent player for the Cougars over the next four years. While short at 6-0, 216, Woods is a thumper and has good instincts at middle linebacker. While Woods will spend this season learning from Peyton Pelluer and contributing when he can, don’t be surprised if the redshirt freshman out of San Diego leads the Cougars in tackles in the coming years.
3. Will Derek Moore and Dezmon Patmon elevate their games?
Considering he never had the benefit of a redshirt year, Dezmon Patmon had a fine freshman season. It was only the prodigious talent he flashed during preseason camp, which led to his temporary ascension into the two-deeps, that created unmet expectations for the 6-4, 211-pound teenager. Patmon played in four games and made a couple of catches. He will be a productive player for the Cougars if he improves at a normal rate. But he has the opportunity to be a lot more if he figures out how to bring consistent effort this spring.
Rush linebacker Derek Moore was a consistent, productive player for the Cougars as a true freshman. Now he’s a 6-1, 246-pound veteran whose team needs him to be a stud. If Moore can make the leap from precocious freshman to star sophomore, it will make WSU’s front seven a lot scarier for opposing offenses.
4. Who will replace Shalom Luani?
Shalom Luani’s presence will be missed as a defender of passes, as a deliverer of big hits and, most important, as a maker of big plays in critical junctures of the game. Replacing Luani will not just be about finding another starting safety – or linebacker, as was often the case – but about finding another player to step up and do something to change the game’s momentum when the Cougars were on the ropes.
Senior safety Robert Taylor showed flashes of being that guy last year, his first season with WSU after transferring from the same junior college that produced Luani. Or maybe it will be safety Jalen Thompson, who started all 13 games as a true freshman last year. Keep an eye on athletic redshirt freshman D’jimon Jones, as well.
5. How will Derek Sage and Jeff Phelps mesh with the other assistant coaches?
The Cougars lost some big presences when defensive line coach Joe Salave’a and inside receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard left for Oregon and Purdue, respectively. Salave’a was an established, well-respected coach who commanded respect outside his position group and Shephard added a lot of energy to practices.
New assistants Phelps and Sage come highly regarded. They will invariably be more effective once they’ve built relationships with their colleagues and players, and 15 practices in sunny Martin Stadium will go a long way.