Russell: Battles loom on WSU special teams

FRESH OFF THE recruiting trail, Washington State assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Eric Russell was in Kennewick for all of five minutes Friday for "A Night with Cougar Football" before he was peppered with an array of questions. And he was most obliging, offering insights on the kicking game, return men, gunners, spring ball and this year's class of recruits.

One of the pressing questions in Cougar football for 2014 is who will replace kicker Andrew Furney, a standout four-year starter. Right behind that question is the situation at punter.

Russell said spring practices, which start next month, will be a veritable free-for-all at both specialist positions.

"Somebody's got to come in and win the job," Russell said.

All eyes will be on Wes Concepcion, a senior-to-be from Kent, and second-year freshman Erik Powell from Vancouver, Wash. Concepcion has been a backup at both kicker and punter the last three seasons but will be looked to primarily as a punter this year, Russell said. In 2013, Concepcion punted 12 times in relief of struggling senior Mike Bowlin and averaged a modest 36.2 yards per boot.

Powell, a soccer player for most of his youth, turned heads at a WSU summer camp before his 2012 senior season at Seton Catholic and was invited to walk on at WSU this past fall. Russell said he loves Powell's demeanor, and doesn't recall Powell missing a kick in the Cougar' training camp last August.

"There's plenty of things for Wes to improve on and Erik Powell is just a level-headed guy. Both of these guys are incredible workers in our off-season program, two fairly good athletes," Russell said.

Powell and Concepcion will have a jump on other contenders – and there indeed will be competition. Russell said the plan is to recruit walk-ons to liven up the competition.

"We're going to recruit as good a player that we can," Russell said. "Obviously we would've brought in a scholarship kicker if that would've worked out …. We'll have tryouts first day of spring practice as well get to see if there's anybody on campus as far as kicker and punters. We're gonna get scholarship-worthy guys to compete with these cats. To the victor goes the spoils."

At least two new faces may join the fray in the fall. Zach Standish, a senior kicker/punter at Barlow High in Gresham, Ore., has been invited to walk on and is weighing similar offers from Oregon State and others. Meanwhile, Sean Lowney, who kicked and punted this past season at Mount Si High in Snoqualmie, announced on Facebook that he plans to walk on at WSU in the fall.

ELSEHWERE ON SPECIAL TEAMS, the graduation of return man Leon Brooks creates another opportunity for open competition, but Russell said both punt and kickoff jobs will be up for grabs.

In 2013, Brooks returned every punt for the Cougs, while rising senior Rickey Galvin and rising junior Teondray Caldwell returned the bulk of kickoffs.

"All of the returner positions (punt and kickoff) will be wide open," Russell said. "We gotta get more explosive and more dynamic there. We've got to identify a guy or two and stick with them and go with them and develop them. There might be a couple guys out of this grayshirt class that might have an opportunity."


WSU's 2014 recruiting class: CLICK HERE.

For a head start on who the Cougs are looking at for 2015, CLICK HERE.
Galvin averaged 22.4 yards on the 24 kicks he turned in 2013 and Caldwell averaged 22.9 on 15 returns. Galvin's longest return was 35 yards and Caldwell's 45.

Russell said that prior experience won't be an edge for them. He's aiming to see "explosiveness," period.

Russell is taking a similar approach to the gunner positions, which in 2013 featured the likes of now-departed seniors Nolan Washington and Anthony Carpenter. Russell noted that Kristoff Williams, Isiah Myers and Theron West bring experience to the position, but said he's leaving the door open for incoming grayshirts and members of the 2014 class to get onto the field.

One spot on special teams that looks pretty well secure at this stage is long snapper, where starter Alex Den Bleyker returns. "There's another guy there (Jerred Sonneborn), but he hasn't pushed Alex yet," Russell said.

AS FOR RECRUITING, Russell says the Cougars' new class is balanced and possesses considerable speed. Asked to single out a handful, Russell said, "We're excited about Jalen Canty. Marcellus Pippins has done an unbelievable job in the offseason conditions and brought a lot of quickness and athleticism to the table. Dylan Hanser is a long, athletic kid at linebacker, we're excited about all those guys."

Pippins and Hanser enrolled at WSU in January after grayshirting this past season.

Russell also highlighted 6-1 cornerback Kevin Griffin, who brings height to the position and comes from a quality program out of De La Salle in Northern Californioa, 245-pound Woodinville offensive lineman Andre Dillard, who's athleticism and frame make him "exactly what you're looking for" to mold and develop.

Russell said he will wait until the players get to Pullman before speculating about who could potentially play right away because often times those assumptions prove to be inaccurate.

"Usually how it goes is the ones you think are gonna play are the ones that might not and somebody you think doesn't have a chance – might be their year," he said while noting the multiple openings the Cougars have in the secondary. "These grayshirt guys who have an opportunity to go through spring ball will obviously have the upper hand. All of ‘em are going to have an opportunity."

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