SEATTLE – Former Washington State standouts Shalom Luani and River Cracraft have kept an eye on the Cougars’ ascension since exhausting their eligibility in 2016, each keeping in touch with players from the program’s school-record 11-win team last season.
They’ve spent most of their post-Pullman lives trying to keep their own careers alive.
Luani, a safety for the Seattle Seahawks, and Cracraft, a kick returner and wide receiver for the Denver Broncos, locked up in a preseason game at CenturyLink Field earlier this month, both fighting for spots on their respective teams’ 53-man rosters.
Drafted in the seventh round by the Oakland Raiders in 2017, Luani, a first-team All-Pac-12 safety at WSU, is hoping to cement a backup role with Seattle, where he was traded last season, registering time in 12 regular-season games, primarily on special teams.
Cracraft, who ranks second all time in receptions (218) at WSU, went undrafted in 2017 following a late-season knee injury his senior year that initially derailed his professional career before being signed by the Broncos’ practice squad in October 2017.
Primarily a practice squad player in Denver, Cracraft logged his first regular-season reps in 2018, returning kicks (12 punts for 40 yards and three kickoffs for 43 yards), and hauling in one catch for 44 yards.
Luani and Cracraft are two of the 14 ex-Cougars in NFL camps this month.
“It’s a blessing to be here, there’s just no other way to explain it,” Luani told The Spokesman-Review in an Aug. 8 postgame interview.
Luani, still a relatively raw talent a few years removed from a star-studded American Samoa soccer career – he scored two goals in a 2011 World Cup qualifier – said he isn’t thinking about a potential pink slip come Sept. 1.
Multiple Seahawks pundits have forecast Luani to make the practice squad, not the 53-man roster.
“With the effort that I’ve given, and just doing me and not thinking about other stuff, I don’t think about not making the team,” Luani said. “I can’t focus on things outside my control.”
Cracraft didn’t return a kick in college and had just four punt returns, but his ability as a returner appears to be his meal ticket with the Broncos.
Throughout the preseason, Cracraft has been the Broncos’ primary punt returner and one of two kickoff returners.
Whether Cracraft will make the 53-man roster apperars to be a push, according to Broncos pundits. But he has a legitimate shot.
“You gotta find what the team needs, and last season there was a vacant spot and I found myself back there,” Cracraft said. “It’s definitely not something I was expecting to do to make the team. I am still working to establish myself as a receiver here.
“It probably looked really nervous (as a returner) last year. Now I am really comfortable and trying to make some actual plays. Catching the ball has been easier.”
Luani and Cracraft had nice junior and senior seasons at Washington State, going a combined 17-9 (13-5 in Pac-12 play) during that span and helping the Cougars reach the Sun Bowl and Holiday Bowl.
WSU has gone 20-6 (13-5 Pac-12) since their departure, reaching the Holiday Bowl again 2017 and the Alamo Bowl in 2018, beating Iowa State 28-26 for the milestone 11th win and finishing the season ranked No. 10 in the final Associated Press poll.
The Cougars recently checked in at No. 23 in the AP preseason poll.
“(WSU head coach Mike) Leach is doing a really good job. I am happy to have been on the teams that helped the program get to this point,” Luani said. “It’s been exciting to see them do it big. I hope they win the (Pac-12) this year.”
Cracraft echoed Luani.
“It was great following them last year and all the great things they were doing, but not I don’t know as many players on the team since they’re a bit younger,” Cracraft said.