“Spring is about working on technique and fundamentals, but when you step back and look at where this team is, I really think the focus is going to be developing chemistry in three key areas,” he told Cougfan.com last week while in Seattle for the annual CougsFirst! Show.
Here’s how he breaks it down:
1. THE SHUFFLE AT RECEIVER
“I think you’re going to see a lot of guys shuffling between inside receiver and outside receiver, with the aim of getting the four best guys in the starting lineup, period. That sounds easier than it is, because inside and outside are different games and it’s critical that everyone is on the same page with the quarterback.
“I think Gabe Marks and Kyrin Priester, for example, have the flexibility to play either position. And others too …. I’m looking forward to seeing what (rookie) Isaiah Johnson can do. I don’t expect him to crack the starting lineup but he’s very talented and runs nice routes and I could see him in the rotation and either inside or outside receiver.”
2. REPLACING DAHL AND EKLUND
“You have two big pieces to replace in Joe Dahl (at left tackle) and Gunnar Eklund (at left guard) and not just from a performance standpoint but also as leaders. Who are the guys who will step into their positions and who is the guy or guys who will step up and be the leader up front? Is Luke (Falk) going to have help out with leading the line or is one person going to take that worry off his plate?
“Filling those two positions, developing chemistry across the line, and finding a leader will be one of the keys to the Cougars’ spring season in my opinion.”
3. LEADERSHIP ON DEFENSE
“Taylor Taliulu may not have been a star on the field, but from his strong safety position he was a real leader, making sure guys were lined up in the right places with the right calls. He’s going to be missed and that leadership role must be replaced in the secondary. It will be interesting to see who emerges. One guy I’ll have my eye on is Shalom Luani (pictured above). He’s a quiet guy but he plays with confidence – reminds me of my old teammate Lamont Thompson. He was quiet but a great leader. When he spoke, people listened.
“Another defensive leadership role that will need to be filled is at linebacker with Jeremiah Allison’s graduation. He kept the front seven connected to the secondary. Peyton Pelluer has the experience and knowledge to fill that leadership role and become a big chemistry builder between the front seven and the secondary … Issac Dotson (a nickel who is expected to play OLB this spring) is another guy with excellent leadership skills on the defense.”
- Gesser says rising third-year sophomore Peyton Bender is the clear No. 2 QB behind Falk, but thinks second-year freshman Tyler Hilinksi could give him a run. “Tyler will get his opportunities this spring,” Gesser said. “Will he take advantage of that? How well does he handle pressure? How well does he pick up blitzes? Depending on the answers, he may give himself a shot to battle it out for No. 2 in fall camp.”
- One of the most intriguing positions to watch this spring will be running back, Gesser said, because there are three proven commodities returning in Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks and Keith Harrington, and a second-year freshman in James Williams who turned heads in practice last fall. “James is itching to prove himself,” Gesser said. “How’s that going to shake out with four guys competing for turns? If James steps up, is there a chance Harrington might move back to his original position, receiver? … We’ll know more at the end of April, but all this competition at running back and at receiver tells me Mike Leach is building depth in the program – he’s wanted to create that competition across the board and now we’re seeing it.”
- Of the 12 Cougars who earned some form of All-Pac-12 recognition last season from either the conference or the Associated Press, eight of them return in 2016: Falk, Marks, Luani, Pelluer, Cole Madison, Eduardo Middleton, Hercules Mata'afa and Riley Sorenson.
- Spring practices begin March 24 and conclude April 26. The annual Crimson & Gray Game will be held April 23 at Spokane’s Joe Albi Stadium (estimated 1 p.m. kickoff).