PULLMAN – Three players appear to have locked up starting roles on Washington State’s overhauled offensive line.
One of them knows for sure where he’ll be stationed. One is settling in at a new position, and another is figuring out where he fits best.
“We want to keep mixing and matching and finding the right combination,” first-year Cougs coach Jake Dickert said last week.
Fourth-year sophomore Konner Gomness, an eight-game starter at center last season, has drawn steady praise from Cougar coaches and teammates during spring camp for his burgeoning leadership qualities and consistent play in the heart of the trenches. Barring any major setbacks, Gomness won’t budge at the first-string center spot.
Among WSU’s two other tested returners up front, there’s been some movement.
Jarrett Kingston and Ma’ake Fifita, both of whom started at the guard positions last season, have spent the first three weeks of spring ball getting accustomed to new positions.
Kingston, a fifth-year junior and the Cougars’ top left guard over the past two years, shifted to left tackle in the offseason. The 6-foot-5, 300-pounder has been sidelined recently at camp due to an unspecified injury, but when healthy, Kingston provides a blindside anchor in WSU’s pass-heavy new offense.
“Jarrett really gives us that (model) left tackle, that athleticism,” Dickert said after practice Thursday morning at Rogers Field. “We’ll kind of see how all the pieces form, as far as where Ma’ake is best. He’s learning and growing a lot on the outside. His progress through eight practices has been really, really good. He can do it. He gives us that flex. I think he’s a little more comfortable inside, but at the end of the day, he’s going to have to be (flexible), and he’s smart enough to play multiple positions.”
Fifita, who shared snaps at right guard for the first half of 2021 before assuming starting duties for the final five games, has mostly been lining up at right tackle with WSU’s first unit this spring. He saw some action at left tackle last season.
Fifita began the 2021 campaign second on the Cougs’ depth chart at right guard behind Cade Beresford, who transferred to Boise State late in the season. Fifita’s potential impressed former coach Nick Rolovich early on. The Everett product adopted a significant rotational role by Week 2 and played healthy minutes every game the rest of the year.
At 6-5 and 302 pounds, the fourth-year sophomore carries his weight well and exhibits ideal qualities of a tackle – a blend of agility and power.
Though Fifita and Kingston seem like the favorites to start at the tackle positions in 2022, Dickert is keeping his options open.
“We’re going to have to have some multiple guys,” he said last week. “Ma’ake is learning at tackle and what that means, playing in more space. … You’ll see that quite a bit with those guys rotating around, even Kingston playing a little guard. What’s our best five? We still gotta work to find that combination.”
No WSU position group suffered a greater blow to its depth chart after the 2021 season than the offensive line.
Abraham Lucas is headed to the pro ranks after starting 42 games at right tackle during a decorated Coug career. He didn’t allow a sack last year and is projected by ESPN to be selected in the second or third round of the NFL draft, which begins April 28. Liam Ryan, a 42-game starter at left tackle, also wrapped up his long stay in Pullman, and senior center Brian Greene transferred to Michigan State following an injury-derailed 2021 season.
The Cougars’ outlook at tackle improved Thursday when WSU announced that former Northern Colorado standout Grant Stephens had signed with the program. The 6-4, 300-pound senior started for the FCS Bears at right tackle for two seasons and was named to the All-Big Sky second team last year.
Until he arrives, the experience is scarce behind – and beside – Kingston, Fifita and Gomness.
Redshirt freshman Christian Hilborn is holding down first-string right guard at spring camp. He appeared in two games last season, filling in at right tackle in the 2021 finale for Lucas, who opted out of the Sun Bowl. Hilborn’s first start was one to forget. He was benched after a rough first quarter.
Sophomore Rodrick Tialavea is shouldering most of the first-team spring reps at left guard. He was a special-teamer last season.
Brock Dieu made his collegiate debut in the Cougs’ Sun Bowl loss to Central Michigan on Dec. 31 in El Paso, Texas. He fared well in relief of Fifita at right guard – Fifita spelled Hilborn at tackle. Dieu is Gomness’ spring-camp backup at center.
“We put a lot on the center. Konner and Brock are really controlling protections, (identifying defenses) in the run game,” Dickert said. “Those two guys have done a good job of really standing out to me with leadership, with energy, with effort, and I think you hear their voice. They’re commanding the offensive line like we need ’em to, and that’ll be a progression as we keep going.”
Jack Wilson is a reserve to watch at the tackle position. The 6-11 junior, a former basketball player at Oregon State and Idaho, has earned a couple of shoutouts from Dickert.
“This is the first time he’s really had an opportunity to learn and grow at the O-line position,” Dickert said.
First-year offensive coordinator Eric Morris, who is leading the installation of an Air Raid system, offered his thoughts Tuesday on the Cougs’ new-look O-line.
“I’ve been surprised about our pass protection. It’s a little better than I expected with all the youth we have,” he said. “Losing four guys is always hard and we’re moving some people around, putting Kingston at tackle. He’s been a guard his entire life. They’ve done a really nice job in pass pro, but we still have to work on some of the gap-scheme running stuff. They just haven’t done it very much.”
WSU’s big men got an earful from O-line coach Clay McGuire on Thursday after a particularly one-sided team session in which the Cougs’ veteran defensive front clogged running lanes and stuffed several plays.
“There’s a physicality piece that I know coach McGuire would like to continue to see,” Dickert said. “You heard him today.
“He’s rolling through it. We need to be physical up front to be able to move some people off the ball.”
Multiple notables sidelinedWSU practiced without a handful of offensive standouts, including Kingston, slot Lincoln Victor, running back Nakia Watson and outside receiver De’Zhaun Stribling.
Minor injuries opened the door for reserves and younger players to shine. Dickert singled out freshman running back Djouvensky Schlenbaker, outside receivers Anderson Grover and CJ Moore, and offensive tackles Wilson and Fa’alili Fa’amoe – a redshirt freshman who was recently converted from defensive tackle.
“At 6:15 this morning, I was running around yelling about the opportunity that it’s going to be for some of our guys,” Dickert said. “I know they’re not farm guys, but if you cut the head off a chicken, that chicken still runs. We can’t stop. … It’s gotta be a next-man-up mentality. That’s the standard, the consistency of mindset we’re striving for.”
Backup slots rising
Reserve inside receivers Orion Peters and Drake Owen have produced electric highlights at camp, and both seem to be making a case for reps this season.
“Orion Peters really sticks out as a guy right now that’s pushing for some really, really heavy playing time,” Morris said Tuesday. “I like his mental makeup. I like his toughness and his route running and his quickness. Another guy that’s doing well is Drake Owen. He’s coming out and has had a great camp. We have some big shoes to fill from the two we lost (Travell Harris and Calvin Jackson Jr.).”
Peters, a redshirt freshman speedster from Los Angeles, dazzled in space last weekend in WSU’s first scrimmage. Owen, a junior and second-year Cougar who formerly played at Division II Central Washington, redshirted last season after putting together a solid fall camp.
“There’s a lot of opportunity out there,” Owen said, noting that the Air Raid might feature as many as eight pass-catchers in its rotation. “You gotta be ready when your number is called.”
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