WSU fall camp preview: Offensive line

MIKE LEACH really likes the first level of his Washington State offensive line – he thinks the starting five can be as good, and hopefully better, than the 2015 unit. But if you listened to what else he’s said about the o-line, and took notice of spring ball plus what o-line coach Clay McGuire told CF.C this summer, the big question heading into fall camp up front is clear.

Returners: Andre Dillard (R-So., 6-5, 290); Cody O’Connell (R-Jr., 6-8, 351); Riley Sorenson (Sr., 6-4, 327); Eduardo Middleton (R-Sr., 6-5, 323, pictured above); Cole Madison (R-Jr., 6-5, 305); B.J. Salmonson (6-4, 281); Carlos Freeman (6-3, 308); Noah Osur-Myers (6-4, 309); Cedric Bigge-Duren (6-6, 320); Amosa Sakaria (R-Fr., 6-2, 314); Drew Norvell (6-4, 293, walk on); Mack Hopkins (6-9, 309, walk on); Chris Paz (6-4, 316, walk on)

New faces: Liam Ryan (6-6, 275); Josh Watson (6-5, 265); Keenen King (6-4, 301); Nilsson Gaisoa (6-5, 295); Frederick Mauigoa (6-4, 295); Christian Haangana (6-5, 365)

Departed scholarship players: Joe Dahl, Gunnar Eklund, Sam Flor, Jacob Seydel, Davis Perrott.

What to like: Dillard played very well this spring, Leach said. You don’t simply replace a Joe Dahl, but Dillard has great feet and, Leach says, he doesn’t yet realize how good he can be. Indeed, Dillard could become a special player over the course of his Cougar career.

Eklund was unsung with Dahl lining up on next to him but he won’t be easy to replace either. The good news is O’Connell came in for praise from McGuire for his work this spring and, like Dillard at left tackle, was never seriously challenged at his left guard position – which can be seen as either good or bad.  One other bright spot on O’Connell: McGuire said mid-season in 2015 that O’Connell was on the cusp of battling for a starting job, lending grist to the thought he’s ready to roll in 2016.

Meanwhile, the three returning starters in Middleton, Sorenson and Madison were a huge part of WSU’s 2015 success. And with last year’s experience under their collective belts, WSU's o-line should keep motoring along.

Biggest question: There is a lack of proven depth behind the starting five.  It’s pronounced enough that if just one of the projected starters should go down to injury, the view here is it suddenly becomes a very different story up front.

Leach noted at Pac-12 media day a big o-line priority this fall camp will be development among the reserves, and that means getting them reps. McGuire also told CF.C this summer one of the incoming freshmen could work his way into the mix this season – a significant statement.   

Perhaps the biggest indicator came this spring, when Madison missed a large part of the session. WSU responded (mostly) by shifting guys around with arguably the best results coming in moving Middleton outside to right tackle and inserting second-year walk on Norvell at guard. 

Now, Norvell looks to have a future at the Pac-12 level. And Salmonson and Bigge-Duren also got some run with Madison out. But it was more than a little surprising this spring that someone from the group of Salmonson, Bigge-Duren, Freeman, Osur-Myers and Sakaria weren’t more of a slam dunk to be first man off the bench, or to seize the playing time opportunity.

The No. 1 offensive line priority this season is to keep QB Luke Falk upright. Keeping the starting o-line upright and healthy all season long isn’t far behind.  A banner fall camp by the reserves listed above would do much to alleviate such concerns.

Among the other fall camp storylines: It’s asking a lot for a true freshman o-lineman to be ready to start at the Pac-12 level his first year.  That said, keep an eye out and not only because of what McGuire said. 

Haangana is massive at 365 pounds, and King also tops 300 pounds.  But Watson could be the sleeper.  He’s undersized at 265 pounds, no doubt about it.  But he has huge, huge hands. And he’s got a big wingspan. He’s also uber-athletic, having competed in both swimming and lacrosse in high school.

Fall camp kicks off Aug. 6 in Lewiston.

RELATED STORY: Leach on o-line at Pac-12 media day

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