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As WSU nickel Kapena Gushiken gets healthy, his versatility shows in spring practice

Washington State Cougars tight end Billy Riviere III (42) collides with Washington State Cougars defensive back Kapena Gushiken (4) during WSU’s first spring scrimmage on Saturday, Apr 6, 2024, on Gesa Field in Pullman, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – What stands out most about Kapena Gushiken these days is what doesn’t at all.

Over the offseason, Washington State’s versatile nickelback made the big decision to cut his hair. He said goodbye to his long, black locks, replacing them with a shorter cut that doesn’t stick through his helmet – in past years an easy way to recognize him on the field.

“Hopefully, it’ll be long enough to show out of the helmet like last year,” Gushiken said, “come season time.”

Season time isn’t here – WSU wrapped up its 11th spring practice on Thursday morning – but Gushiken looks like he’s also received a fresh start in other ways.

Most important, Gushiken is nearly entirely recovered from the hernia surgery he had over the offseason, which limited him in the Cougars’ first few spring practices. In those first few sessions, WSU coach Jake Dickert said, Gushiken looked like he was “easing his way.”

“But now you see a guy that’s dynamic,” Dickert said. “You saw some blitz stuff today, which he’s massively improved on. He can cover anybody in the country in the slot. I think his versatility is exactly what we look for in that position. So excited to see his continued growth, especially after a summer of training.”

Gushiken, a rising senior who started his career with two seasons at Saddleback (California) College, has featured prominently in WSU’s past few spring practices. A staple at nickel, Gushiken has manned the position well, making plays and reminding coaches why he’s in line for perhaps an even more fruitful season than last.

It might seem like a tall task because of how he burst onto the scene last fall. Playing all 12 games, Gushiken totaled 36 tackles (1.5 for loss), one sack, six passes broken up and one interception, an 88-yard pick-six in a loss to UCLA in Los Angeles.

To hear him tell it, though, he’s feeling even better.

“I just feel like I’m way more comfortable compared to last year,” Gushiken said. “The playbook, everything second time around. I just feel super comfortable. And the mission never changed for us as DBs, just eliminating explosives. Making sure we’re not missing any assignments and communicating. We gotta make sure we’re communicating with one another.”

Gushiken, who will play his second and final season at Washington State this fall, is one of the most tenured players at his position. Safety Jackson Lataimua is ready to play his second season at WSU, and senior safety Tanner Moku is back healthy after missing much of last season due to injury.

Otherwise, Gushiken will help point a group of new defensive backs in the right direction. That list of players includes redshirt sophomore safety Reece Sylvester, redshirt junior cornerback Jamorri Colson and redshirt freshman cornerback Ethan O’Connor .

Closer to Gushiken’s position is fellow nickel Jaylen Edmond, a true freshman from the Los Angeles area. An early enrollee standing 5-foot-8, he’s made enough plays to impress Gushiken.

“His potential is through the roof,” Gushiken said. “I think he has the athleticism, I think he has the IQ of the game. I think he’s in a similar situation that I was in last year, just kind of learning the playbook, getting used to playing nickel, because I think he has a corner background as well. But if he just puts a little bit more weight on his frame and learns the playbook better, I think he’ll be super good.”