PULLMAN – In hopes of shoring up an offensive line that’s been shaky so far this year, Washington State is making a midseason personnel adjustment and reconstructing part of the position group.
Ma’ake Fifita is shifting to right guard after starting WSU’s first six games of the year at right tackle, coach Jake Dickert told reporters Monday.
Grant Stephens, the Cougs’ first-team right guard throughout the season, might remain at the position and send Fifita to the bench. But Stephens could line up at right tackle when WSU (4-3, 1-3 Pac-12) hosts No. 14 Utah at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Fa’alili Fa’amoe is also in the mix for the job at right tackle after a solid showing in his first-career start.
“We’re playing a bunch of combinations – Ma’ake at guard and Grant at tackle; (Fa’amoe) at tackle and Grant at guard,” Dickert said. “I think we feel pretty good about leaving Ma’ake inside. I think that has kinda been proven, that it’s probably where he’s most comfortable, in the shorter spaces. That’s kinda where we’re going, but he’s gotta be ready if something happens to kick back outside.”
Fifita, a redshirt sophomore from Everett, had a breakout year last season, sharing first-team duties at right guard. After losing two veteran tackles to graduation, the Cougars figured Fifita would be the best option to take over at right tackle. The plan didn’t pan out. Fifita allowed six sacks and 22 pressures through six and a half games. He was benched after halftime in WSU’s most recent contest, a 24-10 loss at Oregon State on Oct. 15.
Fifita started at right guard against OSU in place of Stephens, who was serving a first-half suspension because he’d been called for targeting during a game against USC the week prior.
Fa’amoe, a redshirt freshman and converted defensive lineman, made his O-line debut versus the Beavers, starting at right tackle. When Stephens reentered the lineup in the second half, he replaced Fifita.
The Cougs kept Fa’amoe at right tackle until he went down with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter. Fa’amoe missed a few days of practice last week, but returned to the field Monday.
“I thought he looked good,” Dickert said of Fa’amoe. “Excited about Lili’s progress and what he did through the first three quarters and hopefully, growing upon that as we continue his development.
“(Fa’amoe’s) progression has helped the thought on why we want to do this,” Dickert added when asked to expand on the offensive line’s depth-chart shakeup.
Fa’amoe moved to the offensive line this offseason and worked his way up the depth chart during fall camp. He took reps at guard and tackle. Coaches were impressed with the aggressive playing style and athleticism shown by the 6-foot-5, 295-pounder.
Stephens was a two-year starter at right tackle for Northern Colorado. He earned second-team All-Big Sky honors last season. The senior transferred to the Pullman school for his final year of eligibility and filled a need for the Cougs at right guard. Now, the Cougars need to find a reliable replacement at right tackle. Stephens has been one of the team’s most consistent performers up front.
Dickert commended Stephens and Fifita for responding with maturity to the changes in responsibilities.
“I think it shows the mental makeup of both of those individuals (Stephens and Fifita) to have the ability to flip them and to know what they are doing, assignment-wise,” Dickert said. “There is a difference between guard and tackle that we all realize. We’ve done a good job over the last 10 days of honing in on some of those skill sets.
“Credit to both of them … saying, ‘Hey, this is what I need to do to be the best for the team,’ ” the coach continued. “Being able to handle a change like that, not everyone can do it.”
Before the season, WSU’s new-look offensive line was generally expected to be a work-in-progress as the 2022 campaign progressed. At midseason, the O-line is WSU’s most concerning position group. The Cougs have surrendered 26 sacks – more than any team in the conference and tied for eighth-most in the nation – including 11 combined in the past two games.
“There’s a difference between being aligned, being on-point and getting beat,” Dickert said of the O-line. “There were too many times in the Oregon State game where there were just (OSU defenders) running free. That’s on us, as coaches, to make sure our plan is better, our preparation is better, getting these guys equipped for game day and obviously going out there and executing.
“Everyone in this building owns that, and we have identified some of the issues. But we’ve got to execute better … against a really good (Utah) team and a physical defense that might be the most aggressive defense in our conference.”
Quarterback Cameron Ward is often scrambling away from pressure, and running room has been limited for the Cougar tailbacks. WSU sits last in the Pac-12 rankings in rushing offense (89.4 yards per game). The team has given up 47 tackles for loss – 11th in the conference. Negative plays have been drive-killers in recent weeks.
“We need to protect (Ward) the right way, so we can get through our progressions and ultimately eliminate these negative plays,” Dickert said. “That’s the biggest thing through self-scout in the last 10 days. We have some momentum (in games), then we can’t overcome these negative plays within a series. That’s been the story of the three-and-outs, that’s been the story of not sustaining drives.”
WSU boasts a top-20 red-zone offense in the country. The Cougars have come away with points on 92.3% of their red-zone opportunities, but their scoring offense ranks 10th in the Pac-12 at 24.6 points per game.
“When we get in the red zone, we’re really efficient,” Dickert said. “We just stall out before we get there. That has been an emphasis (during the bye week).”
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