Spring Ball Preview: Cougar Offense

THE COUGAR OFFENSE IS in an interesting transition of sorts this spring. Yes, the group returns many of its starters from last year but the losses are at key skill positions. Indeed, Washington State will look to replicate its record-setting 2014 passing offense with a new QB after losing a pair of highly productive outside receivers to graduation.

Quarterback Luke Falk (6-4, 208) enters as the incumbent with the most college football experience of any quarterback on the roster. However, that doesn't mean he has the job. The 6-4, 208-pounder will be a redshirt-sophomore this fall and showed uncommon pocket presence in the four games he played in last year after Connor Halliday broke his leg. Falk is a film hound and one of his best intangibles is how intuitively he plays the position.

Redshirt-freshman Peyton Bender (6-0, 183) and true-freshman Tyler Hilinski (6-4, 195) enter the spring behind Falk, as well as walk ons Connor Ennis (5-11, 176) and Erik Anderson (6-2, 190). A real battle is expected this spring could be in the offing between Falk and Bender.

Bender's quick release, ability to sustain drives and to score in Thursday Night Football are among the reasons why this spring should feature an interesting battle between the two. There's also this -- while Falk has a head start with the WRs, Bender has a connection with expected starter Gabe Marks (pictured above) who played prominently in TNF last season while redshirting.

Hilinski gets an early head start on his Cougar career having enrolled in January but he would need to seriously wow the coaches with substantial poise and production if he were to make a legitimate play for the starter's job.

Marks (6-0, 181) redshirted last season after being the Cougs' leading receiver in 2013 at the Z. Marks will be looked to in order to produce big numbers again -- with Vince Mayle (6-3, 219) and Isiah Myers (6-0, 189) graduating the Cougs lose 2,400-plus receiving yards and 21 TDs.

Dom Williams (6-2, 190), who made 43 catches for 656 yards and nine touchdowns last season, will be a redshirt-senior and is expected to enter the spring as the other outside receiver at the X.

Others in the mix include walk on Daniel Lilienthal (6-2, 199). He's an up-and-coming talent who was a scoring threat in Thursday Night Football. Barry Ware (6-2, 213) showed flashes of brilliance last season in Thursday Night Football, and Zaire Andre (5-10, 157) also made some noise. But both were also inconsistent in their routes and in catching passes, which gives newly-appointed outside receivers coach Graham Harrell the duty of grooming them into reliable threats. Ware in particular created a buzz last season and should get a very long look this spring.

Turning to the inside receivers, the headliner is junior-to-be River Cracraft (6-0, 199) at the Y. Cracraft was highly impressive on third downs last season, making key catches time and again to extend drives. He was slowed by injury in the latter half of the season and played in nine games, yet still finished third on the Cougs in receptions with 66.

Robert Lewis (5-9, 162) and Tyler Baker (5-10, 181) each backed up Cracraft at the Y last season when he was injured. Lewis is a strong candidate move to the H with his quickness and physicality over the middle. He delivered some incredible blocks in games last season that leveled his opponents. Calvin Green was listed on the outside at the Z on the depth chart last season after Kristoff Williams' departure but the 5-10, 170-pound Green has the speed and quickness of a slot player, which is needed to create space no matter where a receiver lines up. Brett Bartolone (5-10, 185) will be interesting to watch in the spring as well. As a freshman he led the Cougars with 53 receptions but much of the past two seasons have been lost to injury.

WSU's offensive line now features a veteran group headed into the spring. The Cougars return all five of their starting offensive linemen, including a solid left side that includes redshirt-seniors-to-be Joe Dahl (6-4, 303) and Gunnar Eklund (6-7, 305). On the right side, redshirt-sophomore-to-be Cole Madison (6-5, 300) has a year of experience under his belt after starting eight games as a redshirt freshman. Jacob Seydel (6-6, 295) will likely compete with Madison after starting the final four games in his place at right tackle.

"We want to prove this year that we can keep Luke untouched because if we give him time, he's going to throw the rock really well," Eklund told Cougfan.com last month. "We also want to run the ball, so I'm just excited this year because everyone's coming back and we have some comradery up front. I think it's going to be really good."

Riley Sorenson (6-4, 321) and Sam Flor (6-4, 306) both return to battle for a starting spot at the center position. Both started in 2014, but Sorenson was the primary guy with 10 starts.

"I think this year, this offensive line can be the best since I've been here, just because we're going to have everyone returning on the starting five," Eklund said. "That's relatively speaking because in spring ball, anyone can get any job."

Offensive line coach Clay McGuire shuffled several offensive linemen last season, and he won't be afraid to do it again. He has spoken highly of Cody O'Connell (6-8, 335), Carlos Freeman (6-3, 300), Sean Krepsz (6-5, 328) and Andre Dillard (6-5, 245), who took their reps in Thursday Night Football last season. McGuire said at the end of November last season that Dillard was the most impressive of the true freshman on the offensive line.

O'Connell was sidelined for much of the season, but once he was healthy and in the rotation, he began to bulk up and assert himself.

He also described how the TNF crew of offensive linemen must deal with a variety of blitz packages during their time on the field. While a team that passes the ball a video-game like 771 times is going to give up some sacks, more often than not they picked up the blitzes and allowed a play to develop.

At running back, the Cougs return the tandem of Jamal Morrow (5-8, 187) and Gerard Wicks (5-11, 211), who combined for 149 carries for 585 net yards and four rushing touchdowns last year. But Morrow was the fourth-leading receiver for the Cougs (61 rec.) and between the two of them, they totaled 1,274 all-purpose yards. Morrow broke the WSU single-season record for receptions by a running back.

But keep an eye out for redshirt-freshman-to-be Keith Harrington. The 5-7, 174-pounder came in as a wide receiver but switched to running back during the season. He received more reps in TNF when freshman Squally Canada left and took full advantage.

"I think Keith Harrington has got a chance to be the most explosive kid on our team," McGuire said in late November. "He really does some stuff, and he's a fearless guy on the football field. He's got a great competitive nature to him, and I'm excited to see what he does in spring ball."

Indeed, Harrington impressed the coaching staff with his ability to to get to the edge and run hard. He is evasive in the open field and at times would make defenders look silly with his juke moves to gain extra yardage. Harrington from what I saw looks like a mix of both Morrow and Wicks, and could be a valuable asset for the WSU running game if he can prove himself further in the spring.

  • The annual spring game will take place on April 25 in Spokane. It is expected to be the Cougs' 14th spring ball practice session, with the 15th and final practice a day or two later in Pullman.

  • As reported earlier by CF.C, outside wide receiver Drew Loftus is no longer with the team, a source told CF.C that the walk on had decided to leave the program in order to focus more on school.

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