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Freshman LB Frank Cusano stands out as WSU completes second scrimmage of spring ball

PULLMAN – Washington State linebacker Kyle Thornton is used to it at this point. It’ll get to be late in the evening, around 8 or 9 , and he’ll look down to see his phone ringing.

On the other end will be fellow linebacker Frank Cusano, a true freshman and early enrollee, ready with a list of questions for the elder statesman of the group.

“Talking about, ‘Hey, if this happens, what am I doing?’ ” Thornton said. “Just always trying to ask for extra advice and stuff like that. It’s just been really good to see. He’s gonna be something special.”

Cusano looked the part in Saturday’s scrimmage, the Cougars’ second of the spring schedule and their 12th of 15 practices, standing out with a sack and one pass breakup – in addition to the pick-six he snagged in the team’s first scrimmage. He helped anchor a defense that recorded several key stops, including a couple at the goal line, and one interception from junior defensive back Cole Norah.

For its part, the Cougs’ offense recorded several fine moments, including a 99-yard touchdown drive capped by running back Djouvensky Schlenbaker’s 1-yard plunge and two scoring passes from quarterback John Mateer, who took first-team reps all scrimmage. His competition for the starting job, Bryant transfer Zevi Eckhaus, completed a touchdown pass to redshirt freshman tight end Trey Leckner.

If there was one individual standout, though, it was Cusano. A true freshman from northern California, he has put together a sterling spring , playing well enough that if the season started now, he would be traveling with the team, WSU coach Jake Dickert said.

“One of the biggest things that I’ve been impressed with Frank about is that he has processed the defense as a true freshman,” said Dickert, whose team will wrap up spring practice with Saturday’s spring game. “(That’s) really, really hard to do with the Mike position. He embodies physicality – I think it’s pretty evident to see on that fourth-down stop. He was banged up a little bit there, but comes right back in and makes plays, so really proud of where he’s at.”

If there is one challenge facing Cusano, WSU looks deep at linebacker.

Ahead of him on the depth chart are Thornton, junior transfer Keith Brown and rising sophomore Buddah Al-Uqdah. He’ll also be competing for snaps with Portland State transfer Parker McKenna and sophomore linebacker Hudson Cedarland.

No matter what his playing time looks like come fall, Cusano has impressed both his coaches and teammates. That’s a good first step.

“I think what he adds is just really good, dependable depth, and honestly, just an aspect of playmaking,” Thornton said. “What I’ve been most impressed with is how young he is and how dedicated he is to getting better, and knowing what he’s supposed to be doing. I mean, this kid is always talking about film. He’s always watching extra.”

Another development from Saturday’s scrimmage: Dickert got a little closer to identifying who he can rely on in the kick return game.

Junior college transfer Tony Freeman, a 5-foot-8 speedy sophomore, took one punt back for a touchdown, showing the sheer speed the Cougs need at that position.

WSU needs something at that spot. The Cougs’ previous staple, wide receiver Lincoln Victor, has graduated and moved on. Their one scoring play in the return game last season came on a kickoff return from junior Leyton Smithson, who is using this spring to switch positions from receiver to defensive back. It’s opened up an opportunity for Freeman, who is also getting consistent reps at the wideout position.

“I thought he caught a big explosive play early on in the scrimmage with a punt return touchdown,” Dickert said, “which was good to see because we gotta find who that guy is gonna be.”

At the quarterback spot, the Cougs aren’t any closer to naming a starter, and Dickert joked last week he may wait until the first game to decide. Mateer may be taking first-team reps, as he has all spring, but coaches aren’t ready to hand him the job over Eckhaus. Expect that battle to wage all through fall camp, too.

The one piece of progress Dickert and coaches appreciate is that Mateer and Eckhaus are not turning the ball over as much as they were earlier in camp. Neither threw an interception in Saturday’s scrimmage, a change of pace from the first scrimmage, in which they tossed a combined three. For offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle, it may be one step in the right direction toward separating the two.

Mateer is trying to strike the right balance between making an effort to avoid interceptions and avoiding overthinking it.

“You can definitely be too conservative,” Mateer said. “Actually, in that end-of-game scenario, I was kind of being too conservative. We had like 30 seconds to get 60 yards, and I just didn’t want to throw the game away with a pick, but you have to push the ball down the field. … It’s weird, and I’m still trying to find that balance.”