PULLMAN – The early days live in the perfect place in Kyle Thornton’s mind. Even if Washington State’s starting linebacker had a chance to forget his first couple years as a Cougar, when he was a walk-on and played sparingly, he might etch the memories even deeper into his brain.
He never saw the field in 2019, when he redshirted as a preferred walk-on. A year later, during the Cougars’ COVID-abbreviated season, Thornton appeared in just three games, mostly on special teams.
So now that he’s on scholarship, starting at linebacker for the No. 23-ranked team in the nation, Thornton can look back on the trek with grateful eyes. He understands that, for as trying and taxing as those first few years might have been, he might not be who he is now without experiencing every day of them.
“Nothing’s been given to me. It’s been all taken, all earned,” Thornton said on Saturday afternoon, shortly after WSU took down FCS Northern Colorado in a 64-21 rout. “Nothing’s been given to me. That’s just what makes it that much sweeter for me, knowing that I earned everything that I get out there.”
For Washington State, that’s what made this win over Northern Colorado so gratifying. The Cougars were heavy favorites, and they played like it, but so many of them are where Thornton used to be: Walk-ons, players who are limited to four games to maintain their redshirt, guys who are wondering if they’ll ever earn starting jobs.
Lots of those players got their chance to shine on Saturday. Redshirt sophomore Dylan Paine supplied a career game, leading the team in rushing with seven carries for 81 yards and one touchdown. Redshirt freshman quarterback Emmett Brown completed 2 of 4 passes for 14 yards. True freshman Warren Smith made three tackles, two solo, and fellow freshman defensive back Adrian Wilson recorded two takedowns.
The list goes on. Redshirt sophomore Cole Norah got some burn, logging one tackle, as did redshirt sophomore Alec Eckert, who made one quarterback hurry. Running back Leo Pulalasi registered seven carries for 39 yards, and his backfield buddy Djouvensky Schlenbaker added four carries for 41 yards.
“Just really great to see a bunch of guys play,” WSU head coach Jake Dickert said. “I’ve gotta really get back on the tape to see who did well and what we can do.”
What the Cougars showed in this win, though, wasn’t just a few nice stories about guys who might play meaningful roles in the years to come. They got encouraging outings from backups who might do so this year – maybe even next week, when WSU hosts Oregon State to open Pac-12 play.
Those names include John Mateer, a backup quarterback who is blossoming into much more than that. Linebacker Taariq Al-Uqdah, who made four tackles in this win, two solo. Safety Reese Sylvester, who led the team with six tackles, three solo, and receiver Josh Meredith, who scored his first WSU touchdown on a pass from Mateer.
In other words, Washington State’s future was on display in this win, and not just for 2024 or 2025. The Cougars who played some mop-up duty showed why they can provide much more this fall.
“Buddha is gonna have to play, and Ahmad is gonna have to play,” Dickert said, referencing Al-Uqdah and linebacker Ahmad McCullough, who returned from injury to make his season debut. “Tsion Nunnally, who made a big play, is gonna have to play. John came in and was really, really sharp and his series. Really proud of that second group coming in there and running the ball. That’s what we’ve been looking for. So tons of positives to come out of this game.”
Several of those players project to see the field sooner than later. Al-Uqdah has appeared in all three games so far, playing behind Thornton and Devin Richardson. Nunnally gives the Cougars some size at the receiver position, and he showed it all on Saturday, catching the ball in stride and taking it 62 yards to the end zone.
Then there’s McCullough. His is an intriguing story: A sixth-year linebacker, McCullough played five years at Maryland, where last season he finished fifth on the team with 45 tackles. That the Cougs landed him out of the transfer portal amounted to a giant recruiting victory. During fall camp, he projected as a starter.
Except that’s when he got injured. He sat out the last week-plus of fall camp. With McCullough in the fold, WSU’s linebacker corps looked deep. Without him, it looked a tad concerning, particularly considering the team’s losses at linebacker over the offseason. How would the Cougars fare at the position this season?
So far, they have come up aces. Thornton and Richardson keyed their team’s win over Wisconsin, bottling up the Badgers’ star running backs and forcing them to go to the air, where they were far less comfortable. So now that McCullough is on the mend, trending toward a bigger role as he returns to full health, WSU might feel even more encouraged on defense.
“Once we got everyone in the building,” Thornton said, talking about his team’s linebackers, “we kinda looked around and said, we know what we have to do. And obviously we know what we lost, but we also knew what we gained. A lot of young guys are gonna have opportunities, the transfers are gonna have opportunities, and everyone just attacked … It’s all we’ve been working for.”
On offense, Washington State saw similar turnover in the receiving corps. In that room, every Cougar is new, transfers like Josh Kelly and Kyle Williams and Isaiah Hamilton. Those guys are playing ahead of Meredith and Nunnally, to be sure, but the outings from the latter might encourage their coaches for depth purposes.
Take Meredith. A redshirt sophomore from San Diego, he impressed coaches during fall camp with his blocking acumen. He took consistent reps with the No. 2s, and he hasn’t seen much playing time during these first three games of the season. Still, he caught a touchdown pass. He can always block.
Then there’s Nunnally. He was banged up during fall camp. He went in and out of the lineup. He made his season debut in Saturday’s game. He hauled in a long touchdown pass. How much playing time he gets down the road remains unclear. The Cougars know they can rely on him in a pinch, though, and if they added a few guys to that list after their win over the Bears, they might have won even bigger than the final 64-21 margin might have suggested.
“I always try to stay ready and prepare myself so when that moment comes, I’m not shocked, surprised,” Paine said. “So staying in my playbook and saying stretched out, hydrating all week. When that time comes, you’re not nervous because you know you’re ready.”