Lasting impressions from 70+ Cougar practices

PULLMAN – From the start of fall camp to the last practice before the Apple Cup, I watched something on the order of 70-plus Cougar workouts this football season. Through it all, there are two primary take-aways from it.

First, that nothing matters more to Mike Leach and his staff than full effort and outstanding execution -- traits that hinge on dedication, commitment and caring, not innate talent.

Second, that no one and no job is "safe." Three guys who would have aided the defense in a big way this season (Sekope Kaufusi, Anthony Laurenzi and C.J. Mizell) learned that the hard way via off-the-field missteps. Marquess Wilson learned it through unrelenting, day-in, day-out pressure to elevate himself from outstanding to truly great.

Combine it all and you'll find no better illustration of the new era in Cougar football than this one:

Only three players running with the first-string defense at the start of August were still in the starting lineup in November. And the sea-change had little to do with injuries.

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Travis Long, Deone Bucannon and Darryl Monroe were the only constants in the D's starting line up.

Justin Sagote and Cyrus Coen displaced Chester Sua and Eric Oertel at WILL and SAM ‘backer, respectively. Anthony Carpenter and Daniel Simmons took over at corner from Nolan Washington and Damante Horton. Casey Locker beat out Tyree Toomer at free safety. And on the line, Xavier Cooper, Ioane Gauta and Matthew Bock became fixtures, with Toni Pole and Steven Hoffart frequent subs, while Lenard Williams left the program and Adam Coerper and Justin Clayton almost never played.

Players such as Carpenter and Cooper bring a certain fire to the field that helps elevate the mood and focus of the entire unit.

This defense, which fought so hard against Washington even though Long, the star senior, was sidelined and replaced in the line up by sophomore Logan Mayes, is almost entirely back in 2013. Of the Cougars' 11 defensive starters in the Apple Cup, only one -- Simmons -- was a senior.

ON OFFENSE, THERE was similar turnover in playing time as the season wore on, but here it was driven more by attrition. The Cougs lost eight (yes, 8) offensive linemen this season due to extraneous reasons or injury. By seasons end, only six healthy bodies remained excluding redshirts, and there's still no word on Niu Sale, who hasn't been seen in month.

The depth situation was so stark that coaches would consistently use reserve defensive linemen to field second-team and scout-team O-lines. In fact, at one point, 6-5, 225-pound freshman walk-on quarterback Connor Johnson was playing right tackle on the scout team offense.

It was a mess.

One disappointing aspect of the season from this observer's chair was that tempers were mostly mild. They did flare, especially in the trenches, but not on the scale one might expect from a team that lost to Colorado.

I think I could count on one hand the amount of times a scuffle broke out, and four of those ensued in individual drills. Attitudes were relatively tame.

With that, there were some pretty sensational practice showings this season, and because of that, I'm bestowing some honors based on what I saw in more than 70 practices over the last four months. We'll call them the NOT YOUR AVERAGE ‘JOE' AWARDS ...

Catch of the Year: ‘Hands' down I've got to give it to Gabe Marks' entire fall camp. The true freshman came in and made eye-popping catches galore. I couldn't pick just one if I had to.

Doing More with Less Award: Slot receiver Bennett Bontemps gets the nod here. The wideout was underutilized this season, but fought day in and day out for playing time. He's a bulldog out there, and will stand up to absolutely anyone, weight aside.

Newcomer of the Year: This could go to a number of people, but I'll say the offensive award goes to Brett Bartolone and on defense the award goes to Ioane Gauta. Both made outstanding contributions this season and look to have bright futures.

‘If you can dodge a wrench' Award: Defensive lineman Matthew Bock didn't fill up the stat sheet this season, but when it comes to after-practice activities, Bock thrived. Whether it was dodgeball, soccer penalty kicks or Tug-O'-War, Bock was the man to beat. He's a first-round draft pick in my book… so to speak.

Antagonist of the Year: Easy choice. On offense, nobody got under the skin of defenders like right tackle Wade Jacobson. It wouldn't be too farfetched to assume he lost some friends this season in the trenches. On defense, linebacker Darryl Monroe knows how to run his mouth with the best of them.

Most Likely to Be Upset Over Twitter Ban: Connor Halliday was a pretty ravenous tweeter. He had some bold opinions and consistently offered some pretty hysterical commentary in regards to the outside world. Just a guess, but it's not hard to imagine that Connor's verbosity helped Leach come to the banning decision.

RIP Award: I think without a doubt this goes to Blair Bomber. Of all the guys leaving the program, nobody could entertain like Bomber could. Go look at his Twitter page. You'll see.

Coach of the Year: Depends on your take of what the ‘coach of the year' award should entail. For me, if a coach is quote-worthy and makes you laugh from the sidelines, then you've found a winner. Congratulations coach Paul Volero. #Winning

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