Coming out of spring practice what were your impressions of the team's offense?
Initially what comes to mind is the depth at wide receiver. The veteran-heavy receiving corps was without its two leading receivers of 2013, Dom Williams and Gabe Marks, most of spring camp due to undisclosed injuries and yet, the unit looked as sharp as ever. Unproven guys like Drew Loftus and Robert Lewis put their talents on full display. Sophomore wideout River Cracraft and redshirt Vince Maylem two mainstays from last season, looked to be the most improved and most impressive among the group, exploiting the youth in the secondary on a daily basis. I wouldn't be surprised to see one, if not both of them, produce 1,000-yard seasons in 2014.
As for quarterback, returning starter Connor Halliday silenced that debate almost immediately. The fifth-year senior's runs with the first-team offense were without a doubt the moments the team looked the best. The chemistry with the receivers was there and he threw the ball with confidence, making few mistakes outside of a couple of ill-advised throws in the Crimson and Gray Game. Meanwhile, redshirt freshmen backups Tyler Bruggman and Luke Falk showed glimpses of potential. Overall the offense looked very much improved and in sync after 15 spring practices.
The biggest question on offense is how quickly three new starters on the offensive line can gel with returning vets Joe Dahl and Gunnar Eklund. The Cougars found some solid options in spring ball but there were growing pains. The competition for those three starting spots, especially at center, figures to be intense when fall camp opens. One notable development this season is that virtually every O-lineman in the two-deeps checks in at 300 pounds or more – something that couldn't be said of Cougar O-line's of the last several years.
Coming out of spring practice what were your impressions of the team's defense?
The WSU defense as of now is really a mixed bag - mostly due to its makeup - which includes a meaty, elder group of lineman and a speedy, youthful group in the secondary. The big guys up front already look ready for the season opener. The defensive backfield remains a work-in-progress. The speed is there on the back end, but the lack of game experience still remains an issue heading into the fall.
Up front, Toni Pole, Xavier Cooper and Destiny Vaeao had no issue making their way to the quarterback all spring. What makes the defensive line even more dangerous is the depth. Second-string linemen Daniel Ekuale, Lyman Faoliu, Darryl Paulo and Emmitt Su'a-Kalio allow those starters to catch their breath as they displayed their ability to be productive as reserves. Their efforts, combined with the pass rushing of BUCK linebackers Kache Palacio and Ivan McLennan, make the front-7 the clear strength of the Cougar defense.
Who are the players on each side of the ball that were the biggest surprises of spring practice?
As strong as the wide receiver group looked, the biggest offensive surprise came from the backfield. Redshirt senior running back Theron West carried his outstanding performance in the New Mexico Bowl into the spring season. The 5-foot-7, 171-pounder from Compton went from just another jersey on the sidelines to the clear-cut first option at his position. Of course, it should be noted that Marcus Mason, a workhorse at RB for the Cougs last season, was sidelined for the spring with a high-ankle sprain.
West took nearly all the reps with the first-team and looked the most explosive and elusive out of the five backs vying for reps in the spring. In the open field he was tough to bring down, often times making something out of nothing when catching swing passes from Halliday. Most notably, a 25-yard catch and run for a touchdown in the team's first official scrimmage. Considering West had just one carry for one yard through the first 12 games in 2013, it was shocking to see him be head and shoulders above the competition during spring ball.
On defense, strong cases for most surprising can made for sophomore safety Beau Glover and junior linebacker Jeremiah Allison but the play of Tracy Clark stands out as the most surprising of spring camp. The redshirt senior cornerback began the spring running primarily with the 2s on defense behind young guns Daquawn Brown and Charleston White, but halfway through camp he outplayed White and elevated into a starting role. After seeing little to no playing time other than special teams the past few years Clark emerged as the veteran leader of the secondary, running step-for-step with the team's best receivers and forcing turnovers toward the end of camp. His brightest moment came when he forced the first turnover of the team's second official scrimmage, an interception on a pass by Bruggman.
Did this year's spring ball have a different feel than last year's?
This year I took in every practice and scrimmage, whereas last year I witnessed very little. But based on the comments of players and coaches, my sense is that the confidence level of the team has climbed significantly since last spring.
Going into fall camp, what do you think is the team's biggest strength and what is its biggest concern?
When completely healthy, the offense is the clear strength for Washington State, especially at wide receiver. Coach Mike Leach likes to have a solid eight-receiver rotation and there will most certainly be a battle for those positions. The receiving corps has a blend of big downfield threats in Kristoff Williams, Vince Mayle and Dom Williams along with quick threats over the middle in Rickey Galvin, Brett Bartolone and River Cracraft. Heading into fall camp it looks as if the Air Raid offense will have no problem putting up big numbers with a nice mix of size and speed spread out on the field.
The biggest concern is the defensive backfield. The beginning of spring camp wasn't too pretty for the secondary. Mayle and Cracraft had their way with the group, creating separation and catching every pass in their vicinity with relative ease. The defense looked about five steps behind the receivers on nearly every deep ball and a half-step late on the quick slant routes. But, as the spring season went on, they started to come into their own, led by the experience of Brown and junior safety Taylor Taliulu and the energy and effort from Glover. Once Glover and Clark joined the starting group, chemistry began to form and the entire unit played with an added swagger.
Brown, Glover and Clark combined for four interceptions in the spring game and finished Day 15 of practice in dominating fashion. However, without All-American safety Deone Bucannon to serve as the safety net in the secondary, it's no secret they're vulnerable to explosive plays heading into the fall.