A daily fall practice update from The Spokesman-Review’s Washington State beat writer, Theo Lawson (@TheoLawson_SR). We set the scene, list the day’s important notes, highlight one big play, pick the standouts and slip-ups, track the quarterback race and dissect one talking point from post-practice interviews.
Setting the scene
Where: Rogers Field/Martin Stadium in Pullman
Start/finish: 3:30 p.m./5:15 p.m.
Temperature: 79 degrees, slightly cloudy and windy
Equipment: Shoulder pads and helmets
- While it still appears WSU is nearing a deal with HBO to feature the Cougars in a college “Hard Knocks” program that will air this fall, the two sides haven’t finalized anything three days after initial reports surfaced. But a small group of HBO representatives attended Thursday’s practice and a handful of cameramen tagged along Friday, spending the large majority of their time next to coach Mike Leach, who figures to be a big reason the show selected WSU as one of four schools to highlight – along with Arizona State, Penn State and Alabama. Leach was smothered with camera attention, often flanked by one boom operator and one cameraman as he sent in offensive play calls from the sideline.
- Leach, inside linebackers coach Roc Bellantoni and offensive lineman Abraham Lucas all offered thoughts on the HBO presence Friday. “It’s all right,” Leach said. “Just ignore them. Practice ignoring the cameras, because they want a genuine look and we’re not going to get our work done unless we effectively ignore one another.” Bellantoni said the cameras “wouldn’t be a distraction at all. It’s good exposure for our program, it’s good for recruiting. They get to see us in a different light. They won’t be in our way. We just work.” Lucas also seemed indifferent: “I don’t care. It’s just cameras. Doesn’t matter to me.”
- But in some cases, the cameras did add a little more life to practice. Outside receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. took a jab at running backs coach Eric Mele, wearing a tank top, suggesting the “only time you don’t put on a jacket is when the cameras are here.”
- With a short practice, there wasn’t much to note personnel-wise, and we’ll publish a projected depth chart at some point early next week. But the cornerback reps have been interesting to track this week. Yet again it was Armani Marsh and Marcus Strong playing with the No. 1 defense. Strong, a returning starter, is still the best player of the bunch, but it’ll be interesting to see how coaches rotate Marsh and Derrick Langford in Saturday’s scrimmage.
- During the special teams period, I wandered over to the punt-block drill Bellantoni was holding with a group mostly comprised of longer, taller players who’d be best suited to get their hands on a punt. Players are instructed to “chop” a padded cone, then explode to block the ball – in this case a white soccer ball, rather than a football. Safeties coach Kendrick Shaver applauded Renard Bell after a rep, saying “He could get him one (block).”
- The Cougars are holding their second and final scrimmage of the fall Saturday afternoon at Martin Stadium. WSU will hold pre-scrimmage drills at 1:30 and the live reps will begin around 2.
- The non-participant list wasn’t quite as extensive as it’s been, with defensive linemen Nnamdi Oguayo and Ahmir Crowder returning to practice. But these players did not participate: quarterback John Bledsoe, offensive lineman Jarrett Kingston, wide receiver Jamire Calvin, linebacker Dillon Sherman, wide receiver Billy Pospisil and linebacker David Aldapa. Christian Haangana was not in attendance.
One big play
Gage Gubrud wasn’t at his best in the red zone Friday, but he produced the practice’s best play, throwing an off-balanced touchdown to Brandon Arconado in the back right corner of the end zone for his only TD.
When the offensive line broke down, Gubrud ran toward the hashes and then the sideline, running both right and backward to buy himself time until a passing lane opened. Gubrud threw a perfect pass over the defense and nailed Arconado, who tapped both toes in the end zone before falling out.
Gubrud’s play-extending ability is one edge he has on Gordon, and the EWU transfer showed his precision as a passer on the play, completing a pass that could’ve led Arconado out of bounds or been intercepted if it wasn’t thrown the right way.
“They have landmarks when the quarterback breaks the pocket and they run to get there,” Leach said. “The quick way would be to try to get in front of his hand. That’d be the general notion of it. So he found him back there. I thought that was pretty good.”
Standouts & slip-ups
Standout: In another play we mention in the QB section below, new left tackle Liam Ryan did a remarkable job of opening a running lane for Calvin Jackson Jr. on a screen pass from Anthony Gordon that went for a long touchdown.
With a few other offensive players on the ground, Ryan, according to Leach, did a good job of “finishing the play” as he made a key block to spring the wide receiver free. While it was Jackson’s speed and athleticism that made the play happen, Ryan’s effort was equally important.
Slip-up: Nothing too notable, so we’ll leave this section blank today.
Keeping up with the QBs
Leach still isn’t acknowledging this as a two-man battle, so it’s difficult to get any kind of read on where he thinks the competition between Gubrud and Anthony Gordon stands. Gordon has strung together two nice days, but the competition still seems as level as it’s been. I asked Leach if that’s made it hard for the coaches, who are more than glad to have the depth, but also need to choose a starter soon – probably in the next four or five days.
“Well, we have three that have played really well, so we’ll just have to continue to evaluate,” Leach said.
But Leach, even if he won’t offer any teasers or hints on that front, doesn’t hesitate to offer analysis on how each of his QBs perform during the various team periods.
“I thought both of them did good,” Leach said Friday. “Gordon was really explosive starting out and scored when he got down there. Gage did some good things out of the pocket and checked some good runs.”
Gordon’s unit produced a few big plays off the bat and the redshirt senior led it with a touchdown to Calvin Jackson Jr. on a slip screen that Leach called “a mess” because there weren’t many open running lanes. Jackson Jr. made something out of nothing, though, and found a crease to complete a 70-yard touchdown. Gordon found Travell Harris for 40 yards a few plays later and after three straight incompletions, the 6-foot-4 righty located three receivers for touchdowns, hitting Renard Bell on the run, Jouvensly Bazil on a screen and Brandon Arconado on a slant.
Gubrdud’s drive also began with some promise as the transfer hit on three straight passes before handing off four times in a row. A few of those could’ve been the run checks Leach was addressing earlier, and each moved the Cougars downfield. Gubrud completed his next two throws before Bazil made a costly make, dropping a screen pass to his chest. Gubrud encouraged the young running back after the play: “We’ve got to catch it now. Come on.” Gubrud stumbled toward the end of the series throwing incomplete on four of his last five attempts.
Who had the edge: For a second straight day, we’re handing it to Gordon. He wasn’t much sharper than Gubrud, but his late-drive execution was far better, hence why he had three more touchdowns to his name.
“We’ve just got to finish our blocks. If he’s going to take off running, then we can’t just stand there and we’re all kind of guilty of getting soft on that sometimes, myself included. But that’s another thing just to work on, like I said earlier, and just keep it up.”
– Right tackle Abe Lucas, on how the offensive line needs to adjust its protection when quarterback Gage Gubrud takes off and leaves the pocket.