Spring preview with Clay McGuire: Coug o-line

AN OFFENSIVE LINE THAT needed shoring up a bit on the right side a year ago is now stronger everywhere headed into this sprig. All five starters from last season return, and their projected backups also carry some decent experience. There are a lot of names to digest up front, so CF.C sat down with O-line coach Clay McGuire (pictured above) to get the scoop.

Veterans Joe Dahl (6-4, 303) and Gunnar Eklund (6-7, 305) are the unquestionable leaders of this group heading into spring drills, which begin March 26. Their jobs are not set in stone, and they know that, but they both protected the quarterback's blindside well last season. Dahl, who earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention this past season, allowed just one sack all season despite WSU attempting an FBS-leading 771 passes.

Dahl and Eklund have been durable, too, each starting every game for the past two seasons.

At the center position, the Cougars return both Riley Sorenson (6-4, 321) and Sam Flor (6-4, 306). Sorenson started 10 games last season, while Flor started the other two.

On the right side, Eduardo Middleton (6-5, 318) and Cole Madison (6-5, 300) were first-time starters last season. Now they have a year of experience under their belt. WSU is also insured on the right side with Jacob Seydel (6-6, 295), who started the final four games in place of Madison, who was recovering from an undisclosed illness.

With that kind of experience, anything less than the best will be a disappointment, McGuire said. His expectations is for the o-line to be the best WSU has fielded in his fourth year in Pullman.

"They've had more experience than any of the other returning offensive lines we've had since we've been here," McGuire said. "They're bigger, they should be more athletic at this point, and they should have a lot more experience in our offense."

Behind that group, the Cougars have several young offensive linemen who could conceivably win a starting job. Cody O'Connell in particular is one McGuire mentioned due to his combination of size and ability. McGuire said the 6-8 O'Connell weighs between 345 and 355 pounds, a behemoth who will challenge for a starting spot as a guard. McGuire said that OConnell headed into this spring has not yet shown the feet to play on the outside yet at tackle.

Obviously, not everyone can look like O'Connell, but McGuire said he would love for every offensive lineman to take a page out of Dahl's book. McGuire said Dahl has the ideal body type, and that physique helped translate into Dahl winning the Bone award (best offensive lineman performance of the week) more than any other player on the team last season.

Andre Dillard (6-5, 245), Sean Krepsz (6-5, 328) and Carlos Freeman are others McGuire listed as players who could make some noise in spring ball. Freeman (6-3, 300) can play center, has worked hard in the weight room, and has responded more seriously to coaching in his second year in the program compared to his first, McGuire said. WSU generally doesn't release a spring roster with updated weights until a few days beforehand, so its unknown how much bulk Dillard has put on since last year.

Devonte McClain (6-5, 314) has held backup roles during his time at WSU, was sidelined for a time last season and ultimately passed up by other players on the depth chart. McGuire said McClain, who will be a fifth-year senior, has a chance to compete this spring for a starting role.

In looking at the big picture, McGuire said the Cougars have grown significantly from that first year, when a 285-pounder was the Cougs' biggest offensive lineman in a starting role. However, he said the running game must improve for the team to completely turn the corner.

"We led the nation in passing last year, and if we get our running game to the point where we can get it to, then we will lead the nation in total offense. We'll be quite a bit better football team," McGuire said.

WSU passed for a national-best 477.7 yards per game last season. But Cougar running backs carried the ball 175 times last season (14.6 carries per game). The three backs averaged 4.0 ypc but when sacks and QB rushing yardage are added in, Washington State managed only 39.8 ground yards per game with 1.97 yards per attempt, placing them 125th nationally.

Meanwhile, offensive linemen who are more on the outer edge of the mix this spring include B.J. Salmonson (6-4, 289) and walk on Moritz Christ (6-5, 319). Christ is physically and athletically ready, McGuire said, but the Germany native still needs the game to click for him. If it does, Christ could challenge the starters this spring, McGuire said. Christ is a redshirt-senior.

Salmonson will head into the season as a redshirt-sophomore and McGuire said his best position remains unclear, though it could be center. McGuire said Salmonson is a good team player who has played in some tight end sets and on special teams.

McGuire said Brandon Evers (6-6, 284) is one who was talented out of high school despite playing only one year on the offensive line. He was delayed in his development process by a lingering injury from high school. The offensive line is the toughest position to come in and play right away, McGuire said, and successful programs typically like to wait until the O-linemen become tougher, bigger, meaner and hungrier before facing live action on Saturdays.

For that reason, McGuire said the Cougars are most likely redshirt their offensive line signees when they arrive later this summer. That group includes Cedric Bigge-Duren, Davis Perrott, Noah Myers, Joseph Price and Amosa Sakaria.

McGuire last year would regularly shuffle several players in and out during practice, trying to find the right fit and combinations, and this spring figures to see plenty of that as well. The Cougars also used a jumbo set occasionally in 14, so some of the linemen who are on the outside looking in could see time in a seven-man front to help prove their worth this spring.

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