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In WSU’s first spring scrimmage, secondary shines and new receivers stand out

Washington State Cougars defensive back Tyson Durant (5) intercepts a pass intended for Washington State Cougars wide receiver Carlos Hernandez (8) during WSU’s first spring scrimmage on Saturday, Apr 6, 2024, on Gesa Field in Pullman, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Last offseason, when Tyson Durant was looking to leave Akron out of the transfer portal, he took a visit to Washington State. He had a connection in WSU strength coach Ben Iannacchione, who worked with the Zips a season prior, but when the defensive back finally made it to Pullman, he felt compelled.

He met the team, saw the stadium and experienced the culture the Cougars had fostered.

“It’s unheard of from where I came from,” Durant said. “I felt like this was the perfect spot for me. High-level, talented ball, great coaches. It was a godsend for me.”

The more Durant shines during WSU’s spring practices, including intercepting a pass during Saturday’s scrimmage at Gesa Field, the more it becomes clear that Durant might be a godsend for the Cougs, too.

“He’s been a really big bright spot,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said after the scrimmage, the team’s sixth practice this spring, which included interceptions from quarterbacks John Mateer and Zevi Eckhaus. “I don’t wanna heap too much praise because it’s a long journey, but there’s not a moment so far that’s been too big for him. He’s learning a new defense, even a new position, and he’s just really adapted to everything that we’ve had.”

Durant, a 5-foot-10 cornerback who is learning the safety spot at Washington State, has had one of the top individual performances during spring. He’s had several interceptions and pass breakups during practice, and as he fills a need at safety, he’s starting to stand out.

WSU needs it more than ever. Following the departures of two safeties, Sam Lockett III (graduation) and Jaden Hicks (NFL draft), the Cougs are thin at that spot. They’re also working to establish depth at the cornerback position, where the exits of Chau Smith-Wade and Cam Lampkin (NFL draft) have opened up opportunities.

If Saturday’s scrimmage was any indication, the Cougars are making good progress on that front. Durant picked off a pass, as did redshirt freshman cornerback Ethan O’Connor and true freshman linebacker Frank Cusano, an early enrollee from just outside Sacramento, California. WSU also got sacks from sophomore defensive tackle Khalil Laufau, freshman edge Isaac Terrell, senior edge Andrew Edson and senior defensive back Tanner Moku.

It added up to an encouraging day for WSU’s defense – and less so for its quarterbacks. Mateer and Eckhaus, the two competing for next season’s starting job, each threw an interception. Mateer completed 16 of 20 passes for 203 yards and a touchdown, and Eckhaus connected on 10 of 19 throws for 123 yards.

“Through six practices, John’s turned the ball over too much,” Dickert said. “I’d say that repeatedly if he was here, too. We gotta be better. I thought Zevi is very savvy. He’s very pocket-conscious. He threw a pick today as well. That’s kind of his first of camp. So we’ll see. I think operation-wise, I like where they’re at mentally. I think they’re really strong. I think they’re both great leaders. But it’s gonna be a long journey as we go.”

Elsewhere on the Cougars’ offensive front, a few receivers established themselves further. Oregon transfer Kris Hutson caught four passes for 68 yards, the most receptions of any receivers in the scrimmage, and the one touchdown reception came from Tony Freeman, a transfer from the College of San Mateo in California.

Freeman’s is one name that hadn’t surfaced much during spring. That trend ended Saturday. A sophomore, Freeman hauled in a sterling touchdown, a back-shoulder catch in the back of the end zone from Mateer.

Undersized at 5-8, Freeman gives WSU another option in a crowded receiver corps. The Cougs know what they have in returner Kyle Williams. Otherwise, they have a lot of unknown, a lot of transfers working to prove themselves: Hutson, Tre Shackelford, Kyle Maxwell.

Even returner Josh Meredith, who has been taking first-team reps this spring, is new to the starting scene.

“So far, he’s been good. He’s been a lightning bug in there,” Dickert said of Freeman. “He hit 20 mph in pads the other day. That is flying. And to track that ball over his shoulder – he is a vertical track player, a la (former WSU receiver) Renard Bell a little bit. I think that’s what we see every time we see him. Excited about his playmaking ability. I think he’s got some ability in the return game as well that he hasn’t shown yet.”

WSU’s offense is hardly whole. Starting offensive linemen Christian Hilborn, Brock Dieu and Fa’alili Fa’amoe are all nursing individual injuries that held them out of the scrimmage.

That made judging the Cougs’ offensive outing a little tricky. Easier to understand, though, is Durant – and the impact he’s making immediately.

“Love his energy. Such a positive person to be around,” Dickert said of Durant.

“Just really happy that he’s on our football team. Kind of an under-recruited guy. Coach Ben had some ties to him from Akron, our strength and conditioning coach, and he’s just delivered every step of the way. So proud of him so far.”