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‘Our best day running the football’: How WSU’s offense broke out in 8th day of spring ball

Washington State running back Djouvensky Schlenbaker takes a handoff from quarterback John Mateer against the defense during the Cougars’ first spring scrimmage last Saturday on Gesa Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – During the first couple of weeks of Washington State’s spring football practice schedule, which stretched to its eighth day on Thursday morning, Syrus Webster has grown to love competing against one offensive lineman in particular: Esa Pole.

Webster, a transfer edge rusher from FCS Utah Tech, is learning on the fly. He’s adjusting to rushing the passer at the FBS level, which gives him a level of competition he didn’t always enjoy at his previous stop. In Pole, the rising senior tackle who stands 6-foot-7, Webster is realizing what it’ll take to produce at a higher level.

“He just makes me better and he makes me better, you know what I mean?” Webster said. “We gotta go against each other to get each other better, and that’s what I want. … I wanna go against the best competition, and he brings out a good side of me. He pushes me to excel.”

In Thursday’s practice, though, Pole and the Cougars’ offensive unit excelled. With solid pass protection and run blocking, WSU’s offense rolled through one of its best outings of the spring, scoring in all manner of ways as its offensive line felt its confidence surge.

That unit remains a little tricky to gauge. The first-team line that took reps on Thursday – left tackle Pole, left guard Rod Tialavea, center Devin Kylany, right guard Noah Dunham and right tackle Jonny Lester – likely won’t be the same one that takes the field come fall. That’s because three returning starters are out with injuries – left guard Christian Hilborn, right guard Brock Dieu and right tackle Fa’alili Fa’amoe.

Whole or not, though, the Cougs’ offensive line had a meaningful hand in helping playmakers have their way on Thursday. Returning receivers Kyle Williams and Josh Meredith caught touchdowns, as did transfer receiver Kris Hutson, and running back Djouvensky Schlenbaker also rumbled into the end zone.

Perhaps most encouraging for the unit: Nobody coughed up the ball.

First-team quarterback John Mateer completed a clean practice – coaches had been on him lately for turning it over too much – and while second-team signal-caller Zevi Eckhaus lucked out on a couple of dropped interceptions, including one from edge rusher Nusi Malani, the Cougs didn’t commit any turnovers.

To coach Jake Dickert, it registered even more promising because his team’s offense showed more of its playbook in Thursday’s practice. In Saturday’s scrimmage, for example, the Cougars ran run plays “just to run,” he said.

“Today, you saw kind of the full complex of the offense, a lot of good RPOs off of that,” Dickert said, “getting the light box we wanted and getting downhill. So once again, I don’t get too high or too low in practice – in any time in spring. But we need to get the work that we need to do to make sure we’re getting better. And the run game has been a huge emphasis. It continually gets better, and I think you saw that today.”

On that front, WSU is handing out equal reps to all its running backs, including Schlenbaker, Leo Pulalasi, Dylan Paine and true freshman Wayshawn Parker, an early enrollee. The Cougars are doing so on purpose, Dickert said, which should “let the film do the talking.”

“I thought this was Leo’s best day to see some urgency,” Dickert said. “He’s the guy that we need a little more intent on a daily basis, but you saw it today what he can do live. Wayshawn did some good things. And I think DP and Djouvensky continue to carve their roll out and keep pushing.

“So another good day for the backs, and our best day running the football.”