PULLMAN – Josh Watson wasn’t surprised to hear his name listed. He was just startled because he thought ‘Watson’ would be the fifth name out of Mason Miller’s mouth, rather than the second.
Miller, the first-year Washington State offensive line coach, was debriefing his players before spring camp began in Pullman more than a month ago. From left to right, he spewed out the names of players who’d form WSU’s first offensive line grouping – a temporary starting five to carry the Cougars through March and April, and if things went well, perhaps through August, September and beyond.
Watson, a sparingly used player in 2017, figured as a right tackle he’d be the last one named.
“When he was reading off the starting list, he went (Andre) Dillard, Watson, Fred (Mauigoa), then the rest,” Watson recalled Thursday after a short practice without pads at Martin Stadium. “And I was like, ‘Left guard? What?’ ”
That’s where Watson started spring camp and that’s the position he’ll occupy when Crimson faces Gray on Saturday at the Cougars’ annual scrimmage in Spokane.
The offensive line loses three starters from last season: All-American left guard Cody O’Connell, right guard B.J. Salmonson and All-Pac-12 right tackle Cole Madison, and most of Miller’s efforts have been spent trying to solve the puzzle. Currently, he has just 11 pieces to work with, and because he didn’t inherit his job until late February, Miller’s still in the process of evaluating strengths and weaknesses.
“I’m just going to mix people around,” he said. “I’m going to pick and choose, see what we can do. Who we can put in what spots. There aren’t enough reps between now and Sept. 2 up front and we’ve got to replace three starters. So I was kind of sticking people in who’ve done well.”
And that hasn’t necessarily meant using last year’s configurations as a starting point.
Watson made three appearances during his redshirt freshman season, playing at right guard in blowout wins over Montana State, Oregon State and Nevada. But based on conversations with former O-line coach Clay McGuire, who left to coach the running backs at Texas Tech, Watson thought he’d split out to right tackle and challenge for starting reps there.
“But,” as Watson put it, “then the coach switched and I got a shot at left guard.”
He’s warmed up to the shift inside because it presents a different challenge and he’s no longer forced to handle the Cougars’ zippy pass-rushers.
“Definitely easy rushes on the inside,” Watson said. “On the outside you have to go against guys like Nnamdi (Oguayo) and Derek (Moore).”
Other offensive linemen have spent the spring cross-training. With only 11 bodies, Miller doesn’t have enough depth to field three complete units, so players like Robert Valencia have manned both the guard and tackle positions so the Cougars can get good work in without sacrificing quality. Four high school offensive linemen will join the Cougars in August.
“My guy Rob Valencia, he’s taking literally almost all the reps today,” Watson said. “Just all the first-team reps today, he probably took 99 percent of them and I subbed him out like once.”
Valencia’s first-team reps have come primarily at right guard, but he’s also conditioned to play right tackle – the spot he occupied when he was a four-star junior college prospect at City College of San Francisco. Abraham Lucas is a shoo-in to replace Madison at right tackle and has drawn praise from Miller throughout spring workouts.
But Valencia’s versatility could come in handy if something happens to Lucas or Dillard.
“I’m a little more comfortable at guard because all last year I was taking reps at guard mostly,” Valencia said. “So as of now, I’m a little more comfortable at guard, but I’m getting back into shape at tackle.”
Valencia’s first season with the Cougars was scattered with injuries, forcing him to spend his redshirt year. Next to Lucas, who’s also never played an FBS snap, he’ll be one of the least-experienced offensive line starters this fall but potentially one of the most valuable.
“When you only play one position, you only see a certain amount of people on our team and you get used to how they play and stuff,” Valencia said. “But it definitely keeps me on the feet playing against the D-ends and the rushes. Then you play against the big boys inside. It also helps me with my conditioning, too, because I’m not taking as much rest as I used to.”
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