McGuire looks toward youth to solidify WSU OL

SEATTLE — Clay McGuire tells it like it is. Washington State's offensive line is going to be young this season. And the competition for the three open starting spots is going to be wide open this spring, the WSU o-line coach said in a one-on-one interview with at Friday's "A Night With Cougar Football" at the Bell Harbor Conference Center. So who should CougFans keep an eye out for?

Spring practices begin March 27, and McGuire says he doesn't have even a rough draft of a depth chart other than left tackle and left guard, where Gunnar Eklund and Joe Dahl will return to their starting roles.

Besides those two, the Cougars' returning experience amounts to a handful of game snaps last season by second-year freshman Eduardo Middleton and true freshman Riley Sorenson.

"It's pretty wide open," McGuire said. "We only have two guys that have real game experience."

McGuire was reticent to make projections because spring practices sometimes reveal surprises borne in a player's offseason preparation. Dahl, Eklund and graduated Elliott Bosch are prime examples, having entered the program as walk-ons.

"There's always a pleasant surprise and there's always a disappointment," McGuire said. "It's going to be interesting to see going into these next 15 practices who is going to step up and be a guy you don't necessarily know about going into spring."

While Mike Leach has placed an emphasis on recruiting offensive linemen since he was hired in November 2011, the graduations of Bosch, Matt Goetz and John Fullington leave the Cougars with a youthful unit this spring.

But McGuire expressed considerable confidence in the big picture.

"We're starting to get there," said McGuire, referring to the program's offensive line depth and ability to reload. "We're not there yet. Next year we'll be where we want to be."

IT'S NO GREAT surprise that Sorenson will be one to watch - he was close to starting last year as a true freshman. But McGuire also tabbed another that CougFans will definitely want to keep their eye on this spring.

"A couple of the young ones that stand out are Sorenson and Sam Flor," he said. "Sam Flor is really a guy who has made a lot of improvement. I'm looking forward to see if he can make the same improvement. He kind of fits into the mold of an Elliott Bosch kid. He was not necessarily a guy early in his career, but he came on later to be a standout player for us."

McGuire said the coaches began preparing for the prospect of an inexperienced offensive line early. That was a focal point during last fall's Thursday Night Football sessions, where Middleton often starred against younger players.

McGuire said he also was impressed with Cole Madison and Cody O'Connell, both of whom redshirted last year.

"We really emphasized (developing youth) in Thursday Night Football," he said. "We got those guys a ton of reps. One of the most important things about bowl prep was it was an extra spring ball for the young kids."

But it won't just be second- and third-year players vying for those spots. WSU signed a pair of junior-college transfers — Devonte McClain and Jacob Seydel — in its 2013 recruiting class. Both ended up redshirting — Seydel because of an undisclosed injury.

"He probably was going to be one of our top backups if not a starter," said McGuire, referring to Seydel. "It might have been one of the best things for him to get an extra year. Come in fresh and bigger, stronger and faster after a year in our system."

IF YOU'RE AN offensive linemen under McGuire looking for playing time, you're going to need to be versatile. McGuire said he does not get caught up in labeling players by positions. That means if his top three linemen are natural tackles he will find a way to start all of them.

"I'm starting to mess with Gunnar Eklund a bit," McGuire said. "I don't really look for him to be the center, but I think he's a guy that possibility could step over into that role if you need to."

In an ideal situation, McGuire said Eklund would serve as an emergency center in the mold of Zach Brevick, who graduated after last season.

And the graduation of last year's primary centers, Bosch and Goetz, means McGuire is looking for two players plus an emergency filler to handle that spot. Carlos Freeman, who redshirted last year as a freshman, is among the possibilities along with Flor.

"We've got to have three guys who can step in and play the position for us," McGuire said.

WHILE INEXPERIENCE is a large issue, McGuire takes solace in knowing that he helped develop a solid unit this past season with three former walk-ons in starting roles. He said chemistry was an important element within that group and this year's team needs to replicate that in order to be successful.

"Coming together as a unit was the No. 1 thing," McGuire said. "That's kind of the key task (to determine) who the five are going to be and getting them on the same page."

The incoming freshmen do not figure to contribute to that. McGuire wants that quartet — Nick Begg, Andre Dillard, Brandon Evers and Sean Krepsz — to focus on development.

"Riley Sorenson played for us as a true freshman and in hindsight we probably would've liked to have redshirted him," McGuire said. "At Texas Tech we had one guy in 10 years play as a true freshman."

That also plays into the program's recruiting philosophy with offensive linemen. McGuire noted that Begg, who also could play an h-back type of role, and Dillard are too light to be effective linemen this season, but he believes the wait will be worthwhile.

"The No. 1 thing we look for right now is length," McGuire said. "Is he long and can he move? Can he move his feet and cover a lot of space. That part goes back to the big splits. We look for a lot of basketball-type players. We feel like we can always put the weight on them."

There are some exceptions. McGuire noted that Denver Broncos starter Manny Ramirez, who played for Leach at Texas Tech, is 6-foot-3. His teammate both at Texas Tech and in Denver, Louis Vasquez, was the lone lineman to play as a true freshman for the Red Raiders under Leach.

"He probably overall was the most talented offensive linemen we've ever had there," McGuire said. "He was a special player."

But McGuire said he wants to distinguish the top eight linemen during spring ball, which he hopes will allow the line to build on what it accomplished in 2013. Last year, the Cougars surrendered 32 sacks after allowing 57 the previous season. And after featuring a nonexistent rushing offense in 2012, Teondray Caldwell and Marcus Mason combined for rush for 700 yards on 137 carries (5.1 yards per rush).

"Every number you put up there, we improved dramatically," McGuire said. "If we do that again and kind of continue on that kind of level, we'll be in the ballpark of where we want to be."

  • McGuire said walk on Austin Kanouse, who played at South Kitsap High, will not return to the program. He said Kanouse, who would have been a redshirt freshman this fall, plans on transferring to a smaller university in search of playing time.

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