PULLMAN – Twice on Wednesday, Washington State’s coaching staff found itself playing defense against rival programs from the Pac-12 Conference.
Signing day is rarely a breeze for college football programs, although the first couple of hours of the early period had been relatively uneventful for the Cougars.
Then, at 7:25 a.m., cornerback commit Armauni Archie announced on Twitter he’d been offered by Justin Wilcox and the Cal Golden Bears – the closest Pac-12 program to his home in El Cerrito, California.
For a few hours, the news caused some unrest among WSU fans, and presumably much more for the coaches mulling around the fourth floor of the Cougar Football Complex.
As it turned out, the Cougars didn’t need to worry on the Archie front. The three-star corner ultimately signed his National Letter of Intent with WSU and Cal’s efforts were all for naught.
But the Cougars weren’t so lucky with Dejon Benton.
The three-star defensive lineman, who also hails from the Bay Area, pledged to WSU in early November. But Benton snagged a late offer from USC and the Trojans flipped the Pittsburg High product Wednesday afternoon, similar to the way they pilfered wide receiver Deontay Burnett from the Cougars a few years back.
Otherwise, it was another workmanlike signing day for WSU.
The Cougars received 19 national letters of intent, which still leaves a handful of spots vacant. Some of those might be filled before the early signing period closes Friday, and the others will be accounted for on Feb. 6, the next important date on the recruiting calendar.
“I did feel like as good as the class was last year, which I thought was a good one, I think this one’s an even better one,” WSU coach Mike Leach said.
The Cougars didn’t sign every player who was orally committed to them when the day began – Benton decided on USC, while offensive lineman Hunter Hill and safety Don Chapman didn’t offer any hints as to if, or when, they’d be signing – and they had just the ninth-ranked class in the Pac-12 (247Sports) by the time it ended.
But those credentials aren’t important to Leach, anyway. WSU has won 36 games over the past four seasons, mostly with former three-star prospects on the field.
“Well, stars are artificial on its face,” the coach said Wednesday afternoon. “You’ve got recruiting services and media bases and stuff that assign these stars and I don’t recall ever calling, in my entire career – which probably is 30 years now, maybe even more. I don’t recall ever calling any of those individuals and asking them what I should run on third down, so I certainly don’t ask them who can play.
“I mean some of that’s a little bit like saying if I lived next door to a doctor, then I ought to be able to do surgery.”
So far, the 2019 class is made up exclusively of three-star recruits. The 19 players who inked with WSU come from 10 states. More than 25 percent are defensive backs – a position of high priority for a team that will see two of its starting corners graduate. The Cougars also have two more places to fill in the secondary since freshmen D’Angelo McKenzie and Myles Green-Richards left the program.
Safety Bryce Beekman and corners Daniel Isom and Derrick Langford could provide some immediate help. All three are coming to the Palouse from junior colleges and Isom has prior FBS playing experience at Northern Illinois.
They’re also a good example of the emphasis WSU has placed on recruiting height and length to its secondary. Isom is 5-10, but Beekman and Langford both stand at 6-2 and Archie is 6-1.
“We have two corners leaving and we’re lucky enough to get some tall guys that ran well enough,” Leach said. “And then also we’ve had some success with junior college DBs, with Shalom (Luani) and Robert Taylor and Treshon (Broughton).”
Isom, Beekman and Langford are also three of seven players who plan to enroll in school in January, allowing them to participate in spring camp. The others are linebacker Rocky Katoanga, safety Gatlin Grisso, quarterback Gunner Cruz and receiver Billy Pospisil.
Katoanga and Grisso are longtime WSU commits who grayshirted last year because of injuries. Cruz and Pospisil are high school signees who’ve elected to graduate early. That’s almost always advantageous for players, Leach insists.
“I do think they get bigger or stronger. They all end up having to work harder than they thought they were able to,” Leach said. “Because you’ve got guys here who’ve run, lifted and conditioned for up to five years that are in awfully good shape. But of course, they didn’t start the way they are now.”
Another position of priority for the Cougars was the offensive line. They brought in three players to fill that need: Konner Gomness of San Joaquin Memorial (Fresno, California), Patrick Utschinski of Walla Walla High and Ma’ake Fifita of Glacier Peak (Snohomish, Washington).
The Cougars also picked up a few running backs with interesting backstories.
Jouvensly Bazile, a speedster from Naples, Florida, originally hails from Haiti and will make a cross-country move to play in WSU’s backfield. Bazile has also been guaranteed a chance to walk on to the Cougars’ track and field team.
Jamir Thomas, meanwhile, inked with WSU despite having never stepped foot in the city of Pullman.
The Washington High (Massillon, Ohio) product was a highly coveted linebacker in Big Ten county, but he elected to join the Cougars because they were offering an opportunity to play running back. Thomas’ strength coach at Washington is Rob Oviatt, who previously worked with Leach at WSU and before that, at Kentucky. Because of an injury, Thomas never made his official visit to WSU but intends to next month, according to Leach.
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