Thursday marks the first day of the academic semester for the Washington State football team, that is, first day of spring camp.
But it could feel a lot more like the former for Cougars players, who can expect to spend much of the next month familiarizing themselves with new teachers and classmates, also known as coaches and teammates.
How five new WSU assistants and a handful of early-arriving freshmen/junior college transfers blend in will be one of the top storylines of this particular spring slate. We take a deeper look at that and browse through four other angles worth keeping an eye on throughout the next four weeks.
For the first time in four years, the Cougars are looking for one. It might take some time to find clarity, too.
Twenty-six wins and 14,481 passing yards later, Luke Falk leaves WSU as one of the most accomplished passers in school and Pac-12 history. No matter who his replacement is, it’ll be someone who’s yet to win game, let alone complete a pass, wearing the crimson and gray.
For the last two months, solving the quarterback position came secondary to mourning the loss of presumed starter Tyler Hilinski, and rightfully so. Now, as the Cougars embark on spring camp, Mike Leach and his staff will be searching for Falk’s heir apparent from a group of signal-callers who probably figured they’d be spending the March and April contesting for the rights to be Hilinski’s No. 2.
Cammon Cooper, an early enrollee who comes to Pullman as Leach’s most-heralded QB recruit in seven years, will have the entirety of spring camp to showcase his strong arm and accuracy. His top rival for the starting job might be Gardner Minshew, the East Carolina grad transfer and one-time Alabama commit who announced on Tuesday he’d be joining the Cougars. Minshew has the advantage in FBS experience, but by the time he gets to campus in May, Cooper will have already spent four months studying Leach’s playbook and throwing with WSU’s current receivers.
Leach isn’t able to comment on Minshew until he arrives, but the coach said Wednesday on a conference call that the Cougars “have three promising guys” on campus, referring to Cooper, Anthony Gordon and Trey Tinsley.
“The biggest thing is we want a fierce competition like we always want,” Leach said. “We want to develop skills and we want to elevate their ability to play.”
Moving (coaching) parts
The Cougars are ingratiating five assistant coaches who weren’t on the sideline when they lost in the Holiday Bowl. They’re also introducing one of the old aids to a new position group, promoting a quality control assistant to a full-time assistant role and replacing a longtime strength and conditioning coach.
“Every time you get a new job, you’ve got to acclimate a bunch of guys,” Leach said. “This was a unique year. … “First of all, they add a 10th coach and then the deep-pocket programs will prey on other successful programs to get quality coaches. If we’d won four games, I don’t think we probably would’ve lost too many coaches.”
To recap: Tracy Claeys replaces Alex Grinch as defensive coordinator, Mason Miller replaces Clay McGuire as offensive line coach, Eric Mele replaces Jim Mastro as running backs coach, Matt Brock replaces Mele as special teams coach, Brock replaces Roy Manning as outside linebackers coach, Steve Spurrier Jr. replaces Derek Sage as outside receivers coach, Kendrick Shaver takes over as safeties coach, Darcel McBath is elevated from defensive quality control to cornerbacks coach and Tyson Brown takes over for Jason Loscalzo as strength and conditioning coach.
That’s a lot of turnover, especially on the defensive side of the ball where the Cougars will have to introduce a new system before they can start to think about perfecting it.
Which early enrollees step up?
Even if Cooper doesn’t get the nod at quarterback, the Cougars will almost certainly have to dip into their recruiting class to fill the two-deep at a variety of positions.
Leach and his staff recruited well – especially at the skill positions – and a handful of WSU’s early signees enrolled early, giving them 15 more practices than the ones who’ll arrive at some point this summer. Of that crop, Cooper, versatile running back Max Borghi and speedy wide receiver Rodrick Fisher have great chances of seeing the field early and should all benefit from getting a jump on their college careers.
On the other side of the ball, 6-foot-3, 310-pound defensive tackle Jonathan Lolohea will have an early crack at filling one of the two vacancies on the defensive line, left by Hercules Mata’afa and Daniel Ekuale.
Reconstructing the offensive line
This is a project WSU may not finish until fall camp – perhaps not until the bitter end of fall camp, either. In a lot of ways, the Cougars are starting over on the offensive line – with their personnel and their position coach. WSU will need to replace a starting right tackle, Cole Madison, a starting right guard, B.J. Salmonson, and a starting left guard, Cody O’Connell. That’s 130 games of combined experience the Cougars are losing and the depth behind them wasn’t outstanding.
Left tackle Andre Dillard and center Fred Mauigoa are the only returning starters and next to those two, the Cougars only four linemen with any experience.
Leach said the Cougars need to “elevate the young guys and see where they can go,” also cautioning “I never feel good about the depth.” The coach singled out Dillard, Noah Osur-Myers, Josh Watson and Abraham Lucas as players who stood during Midnight Maneuver workouts.
Solving the kicker quandary
Erik Powell’s foot was as good as any in the Pac-12 last season, but it won’t return to Martin Stadium this fall. That means the Cougars have to replace someone who, in 2017, went 20 of 24 on field goals, drilled a 56-yarder to match the longest FBS kick of the season and was honored as an All-Pac-12 second-team selection.
To that end, WSU brought in Arkansas transfer Blake Mazza, who enrolled in January and will be eligible to play for the Cougars this fall. Redshirt sophomore Jack Crane appeared in six games last season, all on kickoff, and may also figure into the place-kicker competition.
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