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Analysis: Three things Washington State needs to solve entering the back end of fall camp

UPDATED: Mon., Aug. 12, 2019, 6:05 p.m.

There is no official midway point of fall camp and it’s unlikely any Washington State player, amid three-hour practices in triple-digit weather that often turn into one tiresome slog, can really distinguish the first half of August from the second.

But this current juncture feels as good as any other.

Friday’s nighttime scrimmage at Martin Stadium signified the end of an eight-day stretch and the Cougars were given two of the next three days off to prepare for this next span. Over the next 13 days, WSU will practice 12 times, then take Aug. 26 as a recovery day and hold four more game-week practices leading up to the season opener.

Eight practices can tell you a lot about a team, but it can also raise an entirely new set of questions. As we prepare for the back end of fall camp in Pullman, we take a deeper look at three things the Cougars still need to solve before suiting up on Aug. 31.

1. First cut

Without a full film review, Mike Leach wasn’t prepared to make any assertions about the quarterback battle and where it stood after seven practices and one scrimmage. But cutting the competition down to two players, we presume, is high on the list of priorities right now if the coach is using the same timetable he indicated he’d use a few weeks ago.

Asked if it’d be ideal for the team to know its starter two weeks before the Aug. 31 opener against New Mexico State, Leach said, “I think definitely. … I think you’ve for to zero the reps in and then of course when you get a game plan, start to mull that around everybody.”

The Cougars, as of today, are 19 days out from the opener and the race is so close, Leach still hadn’t made his first cut as of Sunday and repped all three players – Gage Gubrud, Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon – according to Cougfan.com. After an off-day, that was the team’s first practice since Friday’s scrimmage, so we can deduct those first set of live reps under the Martin Stadium lights weren’t enough to at least set two players apart from the third.

The Spokesman-Review wasn’t there Sunday, but Cougfan made a salient point we tend to agree with: perhaps Sunday was the final audition for these three before the first cut. WSU had consistently repped two quarterbacks each practice while the team was in Lewiston, but Leach trotted all three out on the final day at Sacjawea Junior High, then divvyed up the snaps equally during Friday’s scrimmage and Sunday’s practice.

If only two Cougar quarterbacks are repping Tuesday, it might be a signal Leach is one step closer to nailing down his starter. And if not? Well, the coach clearly thinks he has three capable signal-callers and fans should feel comfortable with the depth at the position, if nothing else.

Even though Gubrud hasn’t outplayed the other two – at least not by a significant margin – I’d still expect the Eastern Washington transfer to be in the mix when three QBs become two. Tinsley and Gordon have had plenty of time to audition in this offense, splitting reps last spring, last fall and this spring, but Gubrud’s Air Raid baptism is still only a few weeks old.

All that said, trying to pick Leach’s brain is a probably an ill-fated move. So, we’ll stick with this piece of advice: stay tuned.

2. Solutions in the secondary

As the top competition in the offensive backfield holds its position on center stage, a few battles in the defensive backfield continue to fly under the radar.

Three positions in the Cougars’ secondary are effectively locked up, with Marcus Strong reassuming his job at cornerback, Bryce Beekman taking over for Skyler Thomas at strong safety and Thomas replacing the since-graduated Hunter Dale at nickel. That leaves two spots up for grabs: the cornerback position opposite Strong and the free safety position vacated by Jalen Thompson.

Players continue to trickle in and out of both spots – some playing with the No. 1 defense one day and with the No. 2 unit the very next. When camp started, the Cougars were looking at redshirt freshman Tyrese Ross for free safety and junior George Hicks III at corner. By the midway point of the team’s stint in Lewiston, Daniel Isom had replaced Ross at free safety and a fellow junior college transfer, Derrick Langford, was getting most of the first team reps at corner. But Ross (six tackles) probably had the best scrimmage of any defensive back – including the three entrenched starters – and Armani Marsh wasn’t too far behind him, with a couple of pass breakups.

According to Cougfan, Marsh, a Spokane native and Gonzaga Prep graduate, worked in with the No. 1 defense on Sunday – the first time this camp it hasn’t been Langford and/or Hicks III at that spot.

“Armani gets better every day and he competes,” Langford said after Sunday’s practice. “He’s not scared of nobody, no matter who you are. He plays and plays hard every time, so I feel that’s good that he does that.”

“Even though we’re competing, we’re helping each other get better every day,” he added. “So that’s the good thing about it.”

One factor to consider at cornerback it the height disparity between the three players in contention. Langford, at 6-foot-2, brings excellent length to the position and is probably more apt to give the Cougars a fighting chance against the Pac-12’s taller wideouts, especially with 5-foot-10 Strong on the other side. (A certain game in Palo Alto last season – and a receiver with the initials JAW – comes to mind). Hicks is listed at 6-feet and Marsh checks in at 5-foot-8.

So, with 6 total inches separating the three players, who the Cougars choose to plug in could depend on how imposing the pass-catchers on the other sideline look. And, knowing Strong will anchor one side, Langford and his long frame could give the coaches an option to flip-flop the two and match size on size if need be.

3. O-line depth

On paper, WSU’s offensive line should be among the best in the conference. Oregon brings back a group that simply can’t be matched, but it’s hard to think of another front in the conference as accomplished as the one in Pullman, even without All-American tackle Andre Dillard.

Four of the five starters return and left guard Robert Valencia was a glorified sixth starter last season, filling in admirably for Josh Watson during the Alamo Bowl. Aside from Watson’s one-game absence, though, the offensive line stayed injury-free, with Dillard, Watson, Liam Ryan, Abe Lucas and Fred Mauigoa making 64 of 65 possible starts.

But the trickle-down effect of that was WSU’s backup O-linemen getting only spot minutes – a few reps here or there when the Cougars had hefty leads. With Valencia in the starting lineup now, and top backup Christian Haangana still in limbo with the law, it’s unclear who the Cougars would turn to – or more pressing, how that person would fare – if one of the starters went down.

The first teamers graded out well during the team’s first scrimmage Friday, but the No. 2 and 3 O-line units were whistled for at least three false start penalties and were responsible for a handful of the six sacks given up.

“Most of our penalties were with the threes,” Leach said. “Now we had some, which I can’t fully recall, but it tended to be young guys or the third group.”

WSU’s second team offensive line on Friday included Cade Beresford (left tackle), Seth Yost (left guard), Brian Greene (center), Hunter Mayginnes (right guard) and Jarrett Kingston (right tackle). The threes were Ma’ake Fifita (left tackle), Blake McDonald (left guard), Konner Gomness (center), Syr Riley (right guard) and Patrick Utschinski (right tackle).

The group’s depth has been hampered by the absence of Haangana, who made two backup cameos at left guard last season, but also Jimmy Price, an junior college transfer with FCS experience who’s been shelved the first week of camp, but reportedly returned to the playing field Sunday evening.

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