Washington football: Cougs head solidly into camp
If a Washington State football fan were to peruse the team's list of likely starters this season, he or she might find it hard to summon the sort of nervous skepticism normally ascribed to the Cougar psyche.
Some of the Wazzu backups are a little more worry-inducing, if only because of a notable list of defections from the roster in recent weeks.
But it's a measure of the Cougars' progress during the past year that depth at certain positions might be their biggest concern as they head into preseason workouts today at Sacajawea Junior High in Lewiston.
If fretting about potential injuries is your thing, you can start at quarterback, a position that otherwise looks exceedingly bright with the return of Luke Falk, who led the nation in passing yards per game during the Cougars' 9-4 season in 2015.
No other quarterback on the team has taken an NCAA snap.
The one Falk understudy to see action last year, Peyton Bender, dropped a minor bombshell two months ago by losing his academic eligibility and later transferring to Itawamba Community College in Mississippi. He left open the possibility of returning to WSU at some point, but meanwhile the probable backup is a skinny second-year freshman with an unorthodox throwing motion, Tyler Hilinski.
On the other hand, he's one of the most improved players on the field.
"Hilinski had a real good spring," fifth-year coach Mike Leach said Friday. "He doesn't get sacked much, he pushes the ball downfield, he's got good feet in the pocket. He's a pretty smart guy. When he gets in the huddle, it energizes the whole thing."
Another surprising departure during the summer was that of receiver Kyrin Priester, a talented transfer from Clemson who never quite found a comfort zone last season in Leach's Air Raid offense.
But the Cougs are so well-stocked at wideout that the average fan will scarcely miss Priester. Nine of last year's top 11 pass-catchers are back, headlined by the school's career receptions leader, Gabe Marks, who "literally might be the hardest-working player I've ever coached," Leach said.
And the running backs? A crew led by Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow, Keith Harrington and James Williams is the best in Leach's 15 years as a head coach, he said.
"Those guys are going to have to fight and claw and scratch to see who gets to the top, because we don't have enough reps for four running backs," said Leach, who hasn't ruled out moving one of them to receiver.
The offensive line loses two 2015 seniors on the left side, but tackle Andre Dillard and guard Cody O'Connell are expected to fill the breach capably.
"I was always more worried about the depth," Leach said of the O-line.
The summer departees included two on defense: reserve linebacker Chandler Leniu, who is transferring to Riverside (Calif.) City College, and a three-time starter at safety, Sulaiman Hameed, whose decision to leave football probably stems from his history of injuries.
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Leniu's absence could be felt, but the Cougars' unquestioned depth at safety gives them flexibility at several positions. Veteran safety Isaac Dotson, for example, could be moved to middle linebacker.
In any case, the return of standouts like safety Shalom Luani, linebacker Peyton Pelluer and cornerbacks Darrien Molton and Marcellus Pippins gives the defense a chance to continue the remarkable improvement it showed last year.
For the fourth straight year, the Cougars will open preseason workouts in Lewiston, where they lodge at Lewis-Clark State dormitories and practice at Sacajawea, hoping to minimize distractions and bolster team bonds. They will practice daily at 2:30 p.m. through Aug. 14, then return to campus for their final workouts leading up to a season opener at Pullman on Sept. 5 against Eastern Washington.
This article was written by Dale Grummert from The Lewiston Tribune and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.