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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State first-team offensive line takes form, Christian Hilborn named starter at left guard

Aug. 25, 2022 Updated Thu., Aug. 25, 2022 at 7:42 p.m.

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Washington State’s first-team offensive line found its final piece.

Over the past three weeks, the Cougars evaluated their options at left guard. On Thursday, coach Jake Dickert named the winner of the position battle.

Redshirt freshman Christian Hilborn is expected to line up with WSU’s starters when the team opens its season Sept. 3 at home against Idaho.

“Christian Hilborn we feel like has really established himself coming out of fall camp as that guy,” Dickert said. “We’re really happy with Christian’s progress and I think he’s really earned that (role).”

The 6-foot-5, 300-pound Hilborn worked primarily with WSU’s first team at left guard for the first two weeks of fall camp. The Cougars then gave Fa’alili Fa’amoe a test run at the position. Fa’amoe, a former defensive lineman who was flipped to offensive tackle this off-season, held down starting responsibilities throughout Week 3.

But the Cougars think Fa’amoe has better potential at tackle, considering his athleticism and lean build.

“We feel very comfortable about leaving ’Lili, as an athlete, more at the tackle position,” Dickert said.

“(Fa’amoe) is still new to the position. His progress is tremendous. … He hasn’t reached his best football yet, so we’re excited about ’Lili and what he’s doing and giving us another option at tackle.”

Dickert said he is “kind of set on playing six guys” up front this season. Fa’amoe will presumably be the first off the bench to relieve one of the starters – left tackle Jarrett Kingston or right tackle Ma’ake Fifita.

Fifita has returned to the field after missing most of fall camp with an injury. Guard Brock Dieu is also back in pads after spending the past two weeks sidelined.

“Everybody’s out there, ready to get going,” Dickert said. “We’re excited about having those guys back in the mix.”

WSU’s 2022 offensive line features three returning starters, but it’s still a new-look group. The Cougars restructured their O-line after a handful of big men departed following the 2021 season.

The Cougars are confident in their top tackles – Kingston and Fifita, who were reliable starters as guards last season. The two had been effectively locked in as WSU’s starting tackles for the future when they switched positions late in the 2021 campaign.

The Cougars are replacing two mainstays at the tackle positions in Abraham Lucas and Liam Ryan. Lucas is emerging as the Seattle Seahawks’ starting right tackle and Ryan is fighting for a roster spot with the same franchise.

Kingston and Fifita made their debuts at the tackle spots last year at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, after Lucas and Ryan opted out of the season finale.

Hilborn made his first career start in that game – at right tackle – but struggled in the first quarter and was replaced by Fifita, who had started at right guard. Dieu, in his collegiate debut, filled in admirably for Fifita.

Hilborn performed well during spring camp with WSU’s first team and came into fall workouts as a favorite to start at one of the guard positions. In Hilborn, the Cougars see a high ceiling.

“Don’t sleep on Christian Hilborn,” Dickert said last week. “He’s had one heckuva camp.”

Offensive line coach Clay McGuire has been impressed with Hilborn’s “competitive spirit” – expressed on the field through an aggressive playing style and fiery personality.

“I think he really loves playing football, I really do,” McGuire said recently. “He loves to do it and he pays attention.

“I think he’s really improved himself. I keep reminding myself that he’s still a young player, just a freshman still. I think he’s got an opportunity to be a really good football player.”

Dieu provides “extra wiggle room” for the Cougars’ guard positions, Dickert said. The second-year freshman might not crack the rotation, but he’ll add depth.

If one of WSU’s starting guards – Hilborn or grad transfer Grant Stephens – were to be unavailable, the Cougars would most likely call on Fa’amoe to play tackle, then shift either Kingston or Fifita back to guard.

“If we’re going to have ’Lili in the rotation, we’ll kick one of the older guys inside probably,” Dickert said, “just because it’s easier to bounce some of those guys.”

Stephens earned All-Big Sky honors last season as a right tackle at Northern Colorado.

The Cougars flipped him inside to fill a need, and Stephens hasn’t missed a day as WSU’s No. 1 right guard this preseason.

“He worked really, really hard to prepare himself all through summer to be able to come out here on the first day and know what he’s doing,” McGuire said.

Center Konner Gomness, an eight-game starter last year, drew steady praise throughout fall camp for his consistency and leadership.

“Konner hasn’t missed a rep since we’ve been here,” said McGuire, the Cougars’ former O-line coach under Mike Leach who rejoined WSU’s staff earlier this year. “Konner has done an unbelievable job from Day 1 of taking control of that group.”

Gomness organized offensive line workouts throughout the off-season to expedite the development process of the reshaped unit.

“Konner Gomness is a great leader,” Stephens said. “We were out six days a week getting O-line drills done in the summertime, and that’s not very common around the country. So, it’s one of the hardest-working groups I’ve ever been around and I take a lot of pride in being a part of this group.”

WSU will count on Kingston, a third-year starter, to make a smooth transition to left tackle and protect the blind side of quarterback Cameron Ward. The Cougars like Kingston’s experience, foot speed, balance and ability to anchor pass protection .

“When he’s out there doing his thing, he’s the example you always watch,” McGuire said.

WSU isn’t blessed with depth in the trenches this season – most of the team’s second-string O-linemen have never appeared in a collegiate game – so it will be crucial for the Cougars to avoid injuries up front.

“We gotta keep them healthy,” Dickert said. “Every Saturday, we gotta have those guys ready to go.”

WSU’s deep, talented defensive line had a clear edge against the reserve O-linemen in team drills. Fifita’s absence was glaring at times during 11-on-11 periods between starters. The veteran-laden defensive front gave the Cougars’ starting offensive line a test this preseason, to say the least. But the advantage became less obvious as camp wore on.

Asked to assess the offensive line’s progress since the start of the month, Dickert commended the unit’s chemistry.

“There’s a connectedness with the group, and I think that’s exactly what you need on the offensive line,” he said. “They don’t have the big names, (like) an Abe Lucas … but collectively, they can be really, really strong.

“They’ve taken a big step forward. There’s still a learning curve of where we want to be, but I think those guys are getting better each and every day. It’s about the connectedness of the whole unit and how they’re playing together better.”

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