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Cougar defense takes Day Two of spring ball

PULLMAN -- It is difficult to imagine that a day ending in three straight Luke Falk to Gabe Marks touchdown passes was controlled for the most part by the Cougar defense. But that was exactly the case in Day Two of spring drills at Washington State.

The Cougar defense looked solid for most of Saturday, and there is a lot to be excited about on that side of the ball from where I sit. 

The WSU offense spent the day not quite reaching its full potential. However, a Cougar offense not at the top of its game but still knows how to finish is a very dangerous thing. (Just ask Rutgers, Oregon, UCLA and a few others).

Day Two of spring practice was a helmets-only session, but the defense still found a way to control the practice without any live tackling.

Falk, even though the offense struggled a bit as a whole, continued to be the most consistent quarterback on the field. Peyton Bender and Tyler Hilinski switched roles today, as Bender took the 2nd string 7v7 reps while Hilinski got his first shot with the 2’s in the 11v11 period.

The WR/DB 1v1 period was just as competitive as it was on Thursday, but this time the defense took the period narrowly in my book.

The defensive effort was highlighted by a Shalom Luani interception on a dig route by Kyrin Priester (both pictured above). This is a very difficult thing to do in this drill as the situation is somewhat unrealistic in actual game play: In 11v11, a defender rarely has to take a receiver 1v1 with no other help unless there is a heavy blitz of some sort, and that heavy blitz would drastically limit the quarterback’s time to get rid of the ball.

Luani had no help in coverage and there was no time limit for the quarterback – and he still managed to make a remarkable interception.

River Cracraft showed on Saturday, once again, why he is one of the best route runners in the nation in my book with another solid 1v1 period, and Gabe Marks showed why he is one of the nation’s most highly regarded pass catchers as the super competitor from Venice, Calif., willed his way to an impressive period.

Walk on receiver Kaleb Fossum put together another impressive 1v1 session. This came as a surprise to me on Day One but after two days in a row, maybe this is the norm for this guy.

The offense did some good things in the 7v7 period, but the most impressive performance came in the period from corner-turned-safety Charleston White.

White broke on an out route, and made an impressive deflection of a would-be completion between Priester and Falk. He also made a great jump on a pass from Falk to Robert Lewis and came down with an interception.

This was the first time that Falk has been picked off in spring camp, and the play sent the defense into an uproar of celebration.

Falk had a few struggles in the period, but he found security in his two most reliable targets: Marks and Cracraft both hauled in seven passes each.

Peyton Bender did a nice job with the second-string 7v7 reps. He had some incompletions, including great pass breakups by defensive back Jalen Thompson and linebacker Paris Taylor, but he had plenty of completions as well.

One of Bender’s completions was a 40-yard TD pass to Lewis, who cannot seemed to be covered in 7v7 thus far through spring practice.

In the 11v11 period, second-year freshman Hilinski took the second-team reps and did a good job of just finding the open men.

He found Lewis and Kyle Sweet in space on separate plays and they both did an excellent job of both making defenders miss and getting some yards after the catch.

White, once again, made himself known in this period, with another impressive interception.

Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch must be pleased with the performance that he has seen out of the White thus far this spring, as he’s looking to replace the graduating senior safety Taylor Taliulu.

Despite the one interception by ball-hawking White, Hilinski fished his drive with a touchdown pass. Cracraft did an excellent job of working to space on an option route near the goal line and Hilinski placed the ball right between the numbers on his jersey for a score.

The defense owned the day but the first team offensive line did put together another encouraging performance -- they paved the way for huge runs by Gerard Wicks and James Williams.

On Williams’ big run, right tackle Cole Madison (a former tight end in high school) really showed his athleticism in getting out ahead of the play, streaking though the open field and landing a block on the safety. (The athletic Madison in a post-practice interview with me joked about how he is still capable of scoring some touchdowns of his own). 

Two of the brighter spots on defense in the 11v11 period were Dylan Hanser and Robert Barber.

Hanser at the RUSH has seen limited playing time the last couple of years because he had upperclassmen Kache Palacio and Ivan McLennan ahead of him on the depth chart.  But he’s serving early notice this spring he’s turning into a playmaker for the Cougar defense.

Indeed, Hanser made several plays Saturday -- including a forced fumble in the backfield on a hand-off from Falk to Morrow.

Barber at the nose meanwhile was disrupting the offensive backfield all period long.

There is a long line of recent upper classmen leaders on the defensive line for the Cougs, (Destiny Vaeao, Darryl Paulo, Xavier Cooper, Toni Pole) and the senior Barber seems to be assuming that role for this year’s squad.

One of the best blockers of the Cougar receiving corps continues to be the undersized Lewis (5-9, 162).

He laid an excellent block on a cornerback that sprung Fossum into the end zone for a touchdown on one play Saturday. The block sparked the entire practice -- and started a minor on-field scuffle between the players.

That block even started a friendly, yet heated, exchange of words between myself and graduating linebacker Jeremiah Allison as we reminisced on our former battles on the Cougar practice field over the last few years.

As stated above, the WSU defense took the day, but the finishing power of the Cougar offense proved to be too much for the red hot cougar defense in the end as Marks and Falk connected on three straight touchdowns to end the day.

One of those TD passes actually went to another receiver and was batted away by a defender -- it looked to be a sure incompletion only to see the crafty Marks come out of nowhere to grab the deflected pass with only inches between his toes and the back line of the end zone.  Highlight reel stuff.

My primary takeaways from Day Two?  Grinch’s defense, predicated on takeaways, showed on the practice field Saturday why they were so good last year. And the offense showed once again that they can never be counted out of any fight. All in all after another solid day of work.  And it replicated what I said in my first report: the 2016 Cougs got a little bit better today.

NOTABLE NOTE: RB Keith Harrington was inactive for the second straight practice.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tyler Baker spent four years under Mike Leach at Washington State as an inside wide receiver, completing his playing eligibility in the Sun Bowl this past December and finishing up his degree this spring. Baker caught 40 passes his final two seasons at WSU, including a nine-catch effort in Luke Falk's first career victory at Oregon State. He's covering the spring football session for Cougfan.com.


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