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Washington State spring camp: Cougars sorting out several positions on offensive line

Washington State center Konner Gomness pauses between plays during a preseason scrimmage last year in Pullman. A team captain and third-year starter, Gomness brings consistency to WSU's new-look offensive line.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Two players are locked into starting roles on Washington State’s offensive line. Otherwise, the Cougars have “some things to figure out” up front, coach Jake Dickert said.

 Konner Gomness brings consistency to the group. The junior is entering his third season as WSU’s center.

At right tackle, the Cougars have settled on sophomore Fa’alili Fa’amoe, who converted from defensive to offensive line last spring. The 6-foot-5, 293-pounder from American Samoa captured a starting job midway through the 2022 season and held down first-team responsibilities for the final seven games.

“(Fa’amoe) is really in his first full year – not even a full year of playing offensive line,” offensive line coach Clay McGuire said earlier this week. “He’s starting to settle in and figure it out. … The sky’s the limit for a kid like him who has the ability he has.”

The early favorite to start at right guard – taking over for Grant Stephens, who graduated – is senior newcomer Christy Nkanu. A  transfer  out of FCS Southern Utah, Nkanu has been working primarily with the Cougars’ first unit during spring camp.

“He’s been very consistent,” Dickert said of the 6-4, 307-pound Los Angeles native. “He’s not flashy, but I think he’s tough and physical. His presence in the interior of our line has been really, really good.”

“Christy’s pass-blocking has been phenomenal, from what I’ve seen,” sophomore Christian Hilborn added.

The left side of WSU’s offensive line is a work in progress. Junior Ma’ake Fifita is the first left guard on the field in team drills, but he’s been sharing starting reps with Hilborn. Both players saw time at guard and tackle last year as the Cougars shuffled their personnel  throughout the season.

The Cougars had some issues last year with Fifita at right tackle. He will play only guard this season, according to Dickert.

“One thing we learned last year – Ma’ake is a really good player, but it’s hard to bounce back and forth,” Dickert said.

Fifita, Hilborn and Nkanu are in the mix for starting jobs at either guard spot.

“Ma’ake and Christy have been running with the first team the most, but we kind of got a three-way rotation with those kids competing for those top spots,” McGuire said.

Over the past three weeks, Hilborn has split time at left guard and left tackle. He took first-team reps at left tackle Saturday on Day 9 of spring camp.

“He’s just so much more athletic. … He can move, he can adjust,” Dickert said. “I think the game is slowing down for Christian. Make no mistakes about it, I think he can be the left tackle. We’ll get the best combination between those guys and I think he’s doing a good job so far of taking that to task, and it’s not easy bouncing back and forth.”

Hilborn played every position – besides center – during his prep days in Salt Lake City at Highland High, which operated a triple-option offense. The 6-5, 315-pounder feels comfortable flipping between positions.

“I don’t care where I’m at,” he said. “I’m kind of used to it. (Last season), I was starting at guard for a while, then I had to switch out to tackle. During this winter training, I’ve been switching between guard and tackle, so I’ve gotten pretty used to both of them.”

Hilborn started at left guard for WSU’s first 10 games of the 2022 season, then shifted one spot to his left for the final three games after  left tackle Jarrett Kingston sustained a season-ending injury Nov. 5 at Stanford. Hilborn made his collegiate debut late in the 2021 season.

“He’s just going to be a sophomore,” McGuire said. “He’s played a lot of football for this group, but he’s still a young kid who hasn’t played a whole lot. I think he’s a really good player, a talented kid that loves to play football. He’s a kid that wants to be out here. He’d love to take every rep if he could.”

Hilborn is competing with junior college transfer Esa Pole  at left tackle. Pole wasn’t a football player in high school, but  he picked up the sport two years ago and developed quickly during his time at Chabot College in Hayward, California. The 6-7, 327-pounder came to WSU as a top-10 JC offensive tackle nationally, per ESPN. Pole has become one of WSU’s most vocal and physically imposing players.

“Esa is just a massive guy. He’s really hard to move,” Hilborn said.

Improving on the offensive line is a must this season for WSU, which often struggled to protect quarterback Cameron Ward in 2022. The Cougars surrendered 46 sacks – a bottom-five mark in the FBS. Hilborn said the unit worked  during the offseason to “get tougher mentally.”

“Our kids played really hard, gave us great effort, but I don’t think we were really good at anything,” McGuire said. “It’s one of those things, from a general standpoint – we have to get better at everything. Obviously, the negative plays and the sacks were the biggest black eye of the season.

“Pass protection is something we really have to get better at. I think we’ve made strides in that area. I think we did run the ball efficiently last year. We gotta continue to make steps.”

The Cougars’ offensive line play is “night and day from where we were at this point last year,” McGuire said.  Returning starters have taken a step forward through experience and sharpened their techniques, Dickert noted.

“The biggest thing is: Erase last year,” Dickert said. “Those things are over. We need more consistency with this group. They’ve done a good job building that so far. I can see some of the techniques now in Year 2 of (the Air Raid style of offense). Like Konner Gomness, even him – technique-wise, he’s getting so much better.

“We gotta be able to drop back and pass. We’ll utilize tempo to help those guys with some pass rushes, but we need to be tough and physical and aggressive up front. You win at the line of scrimmage in this league, and it starts with the offensive line. I’m happy with where they’re at, but we know we’ve got a long way to go.”

It’s too early to get a full gauge on the offensive line’s progress, but there have been mixed results at spring camp. The group gave up too much pressure during WSU’s first scrimmage last week, Dickert said. New coordinator Ben Arbuckle’s offense should take some pressure off the line.

His  system includes “more max-protection schemes” to keep quarterbacks safe, McGuire said. It emphasizes quick passes because Arbuckle doesn’t want his QBs to linger in the pocket.

“You’re starting to see it – one-step balls and fades, getting (the ball out), so we don’t have to block for very long,” McGuire said. “I think that’s been huge for us. Those receivers have done a really good job and those quarterbacks have done a really good job of feeling the pocket, getting rid of the ball on time.”

Asked what stands out about the line’s growth from year to year, players point to the group’s communication and camaraderie.

“We’re not playing as five pennies. We’re playing as a nickel,” Gomness said.

The  exuberant group  brought the energy from the sideline while  watching a 7-on-7 period during a light practice Saturday. Gomness, Hilborn and Nkanu carried large music speakers upon their shoulders and their compatriots grooved to hip-hop rhythms. After a minute or two, the bulk of the players on the sideline had joined the dance.

“We’ve gotten tighter as a group,” Hilborn said.