In-depth with Eric Mele on WSU special teams

PULLMAN -- For the first time in three years, Washington State will go into spring drills without an experienced long snapper. The graduation of Alex Den Bleyker, who quietly held down the job for 40-straight games, opens a battle royale featuring three walk ons. It's a trio that could be loosely characterized as the athlete, the wide load, and the bodybuilder.

"It'll be wide open, just like everything we do. Everything is a competition, everything is about competing every day, so it's a wide open competition," WSU special teams coach Eric Mele tells about the outlook at long snapper.

The contenders figure to be sophomore-to-be Joe Lang (6-3, 216; pictured above); third-year sophomore-to-be Jerred Sonneborn (6-1, 252) and junior college walk on transfer Lucas Gravelle (6-0, 220) out of Niagara Falls, New York, and Erie Community College.

Sonneborn has a wider body than Lang, said Mele, which is especially helpful on field goal attempts. Meanwhile, Gravelle is in great shape because as a former bodybuilder, said Mele. And while he is the shortest of the three at 6-0, he can run well, Mele added.

The long snappers will face real pressure in spring ball, Mele said.

"We love to do that as much as possible," Mele said of simulating game conditions. "So even when they're snapping with each other we'll have a guy stand on top of their head. And as soon as they snap the ball, they're going to jack him up as soon as their head pops. We'll simulate that as best as possible in their individual stuff and anytime they get field goal practice in the spring or we get any of those punt reps, we're going to have a rush on them."

Mele talked more than once about the Cougs' motto under Mike Leach -- that players, from starters to fourth string, compete every single day. But from this chair the battle for jobs in '15 will be even more wide open, if possible. The Cougs are coming off a disastrous season on special teams, the most jarring example a combined six punt and kickoff returns allowed for touchdowns.

On those coverage units, Mele said the emphasis this spring for the gunners: being aggressive and explosive off the line of scrimmage. They need to be fluid runners, but also physical enough to make a strong tackle. Mele said four who fit that mold are Keith Harrington (5-7, 174); Willie Roach (6-1, 204); Colton Teglovic (6-0, 193) and Gabe Marks (6-0, 181) who redshirted this past season.

Erik Powell (6-1, 178); Quentin Breshears (6-0, 183) and Jordan Dascalo (6-0, 180) will each get looks at placekicker and on kickoffs, Mele said. He couldn't talk about WSU verbal commit Matt Abramo (6-2, 170) but it's a given he, as well as future walk on Jarry Jones (6-2, 190) will also challenge the trio of current roster players.

Kickers generally pick their own holders, Mele said, but the coaches will be looking at young quarterbacks like Peyton Bender (6-0, 183); Tyler Hilinski (6-3, 200) and Erik Anderson (6-2, 190) to fill that role initially. Then, it comes down to the comfort factor between the holder and kicker. And the long snapper falls into sync with the holder after that.

Speaking of long snappers, just how hard will it be for a new starter to step into the role vacated by longtime veteran Den Bleyker?

"Not very," Mele said. "They're similar to kickers where they have their stroke down or in this case, they have their snaps down. It's just a matter of cleaning something up (and) if they can pick up a tenth of a second here or there. Our protections shouldn't be too difficult to pick up, so they should be fine."

"Physically, being a snapper requires a lot of technique," says Den Bleyker, who was listed at 5-10, 244-pounds on last season's official roster. "Anyone can do it, they just need to practice the technique. Mentally, the hardest part is remaining calm, not overthinking and being confident in yourself. You need to be able to trust the technique that you've practiced."

Den Bleyker said he would snap between 50-70 balls on an average day. On others, he would snap 100-plus.

Lang has the most experience in a Cougar uniform, handling punt snaps in the final three games last season. He said he's wanted to be a starter represent his hometown of Pullman and the Cougars ever since he was a kid.

"Joe's biggest strength is that he is a pretty good athlete," Den Bleyker said. "He is able to get downfield and either get in on the tackle or at least make the returner hesitate and make a cut. His biggest weakness is that he tends to overthink things when he gets out there and that causes him to hesitate or not finish his snap all the way."

Lang said Den Bleyker has taught him a lot, particularly when it comes to mindset. Whenever Lang would mess up, he says Den Bleyker was there to tell him what he did wrong. More importantly, he was also there to tell Lang to pick his head up because the team would need him to be focused when the next opportunity arrived.

While the position battle is wide open at long snapper, Den Bleyker tabbed a pre-spring favorite when it comes to the punt coverage unit.

"Joe is the favorite right now because in the scheme that they're running now (shield punt) snap speed and blocking isn't as important -- because the punter has the shield of big guys blocking for him. So they really want someone (apart from the gunners) who can get down the field and make the returner hesitate for a moment while the other guys on the punt unit are making their way down the field."

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