LEWISTON – Liam Ryan made two fashion statements on Friday as Washington State opened preseason camp, a juncture of the football calendar when impressions are everything.
Spilling out of his grey helmet were the bleached ends of the mullet Ryan debuted last spring, kept through the summer and bravely brought with him to the recent Pac-12 media frenzy in Hollywood.
And if it wasn’t already clear Ryan is going with bold over bland this season, while the rest of his teammates filed out to the practice field wearing school issued white or black cleats, Ryan spun the color wheel in a different direction and reported to camp in bright pink Nike spikes.
“I like wearing them,” Ryan said. “The color choice makes me stand out a little bit.”
Meet the player the Cougars are counting on to replace Andre Dillard, who became the only offensive lineman to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft when the Philadelphia Eagles grabbed him with the 22nd overall pick this April.
The pink shoes, which originally belonged to Dillard, could actually represent some sort of passing of the torch, going from one left tackle locker to another.
“I got them from Andre,” Ryan explained. “Just kind of a little gift. He wasn’t going to wear them, so I was like let me get them I got them from him and just been rocking them ever since. They feel good.”
Hopefully for the Cougars, Dillard didn’t forget to pass down some of his pass-blocking expertise, as well.
Ryan, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound redshirt junior, wasn’t far from Dillard on WSU’s O-line last season, starting all 13 games at left guard, where Pro Football Focus rated him the sixth-best pass-blocker at the position and second-best screen-blocker in the country.
Ryan’s experience and acumen made him the best option to slide over and fill the only hole on WSU’s offensive line, a group that returns four of five starters. The Damien, California, native also trained as Dillard’s backup last season, so if the All-American tackle got injured, the Cougars would’ve had a contingency plan to shift Ryan over and plug in Robert Valencia at guard.
Now Ryan’s at left tackle full-time, alongside Valencia at left guard, Fred Mauigoa at center, Josh Watson at right guard and Abraham Lucas at left tackle.
“It is a little bit different, you’ve got smaller guys, quicker guys, more space to cover,” Ryan said of adapting to left tackle. “But it’s not that big of a challenge.”
The transition might be more tedious for someone who’d been playing on the opposite side of the center – say a right guard making the switch to left tackle, or vice versa – but Ryan’s staying in the same neighborhood.
“If you stay on the same side of the center, it’s really pretty easy,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “If you go to the other side of the center, then your stance changes a little and where the brunt of the rush comes from is opposite. The biggest thing with the tackle position is you’ve got to be quick. You’ve got to be quick because you’ve got that edge rusher and typically he’s a faster guy. Guard, kind of more power and strength inside there.
“Both cases, you’ve got to switch off the twists and whatever games they’re playing.”
Second-year O-line coach Mason Miller offered the same opinion.
“It’s all about the reps on that side of the ball,” he said. “I think the biggest misnomer is a right and left side in today’s football. Not everybody’s dropping with their back and doing the old Terry Bradshaw pass drops, more quarterbacks have open stances. So for Liam, to stay over there is fine, and he repped it all last year as the backup.”
Miller also suggests the abnormally large offensive line splits used in Leach’s Air Raid offense leave the guards on islands where they often have to make the same maneuvers a tackle would.
“The other thing people don’t understand is our splits our so big, half the time he’s basically blocking like a tackle anyways,” he said. “So it’s not that big a deal to me.”
Dillard returned to Pullman last spring between trips to Alabama for the Senior Bowl, Indianapolis for the Scouting Combine and Nashville for the Draft, then came back to the Palouse again during the summer to visit with Ryan and his college teammates before reporting to Eagles camp.
“There was a couple times you would catch them talking to each other in the weight room and stuff like that, and conversing about things,” Miller said. “I think that’s good, I think that’s what our program’s going to move towards is having these guys that go on to the next level. They’re going to learn things that may be valuable as a player to hand down to their buddy.”