WSU looks solid in first practice wearing pads

LEWISTON – Day Three marked the first day the Cougs practiced with shoulder pads and helmets. No question the intensity was definitely cranked up from the first two sessions. The defense took full advantage by knocking guys around and swarming to the football. And one Cougar starter had to call it an early day.

Fifth-year senior star receiver Gabe Marks made some solid catches in 1-on-1 drills, but got dinged up at the end of the period. He didn’t participate for the rest of practice. Mike Leach gave his standard injury response when asked by a reporter after practice about Marks, saying that Marks is “100 percent healthy and happier than ever." Marks did walk off the field and hopefully will be ready to go for tomorrow’s practice, though the Cougs will no doubt be cautious with him. Right tackle Cole Madison also got dinged up and didn't complete the session.

The first day of shoulder pads means the first day of “Bull in the Ring." Gerard Wicks and Peyton Pelluer got the show going as they went head to head in front of the entire team. It was a good battle and I have to give Pelluer the win today.

Yesterday, I noted that the defense seemed to be a step behind the offense. Today, they were a step ahead more times than not. Fourth-year junior Luke Falk and second-year freshman Tyler Hilinski consistently completed their throws, but a vast majority of those were to check down routes or short gains.

The offense kept it competitive by finding ways to move the ball, but the defense was on their ‘A’ game, making the offense earn every yard they gained.

Receiver/defensive back 1-on-1’s was much more competitive, as well as 7-on-7's and team. The focus was back for defenders who were getting their hands on the ball and forcing receivers to make tough catches. A lot of passes were completed, but most were short and almost every catch made was met with with a swarm of white jerseys.

Regardless of how good the defense played today, Falk and Hilinski look more accurate than ever. Both are making remarkable throws by simply putting the ball in spots where defenders can’t get their hands on it. From corner routes, to drag routes, slants, fades, you name it, balls were being placed in tough spots for defenders. There have been just a few interceptions through the first few days of camp. Sophomore linebacker Logan Tago did manage to pick off a pass from Hilinski, but it was the only interception from either quarterback all day.

Fourth-year junior inside receiver Robert Lewis and fourth-year running back Jamal Morrow stole the day with highlight plays, of which there were a handful.

Leach noted in his post-practice interview that he thought both 7-on-7 and team periods were sloppy for the offense. Sloppy seems like a good way to describe it when you have so many insignificant plays then all of the sudden you get hit with a 30 or 40+ yard gain by Lewis or Morrow. These guys are really stepping up when they get the ball in their hands.

Leach always talks about making routine plays, which is exactly what these guys do. But when you make a routine play, then make a guy miss you, watch out. Lewis and Morrow seem to be on a mission to the end-zone every time they touch the ball.

In the battle at outside receiver between Tavares Martin,  CJ Dimry, and Dezmon Patmon, Martin was the man to beat today. He was consistent and made some clutch catches. Dimry and Patmon were not as consistent or relevant in the periods. However, all three guys are showing incredible talent. With plenty of practice reps ahead, we will see who leads the pack towards the end.

Another positive about the offense today was on the O-line. Now that the pads are on, the offensive line has started to open up some big holes for the crew of talented running backs. Not only is the run game picking up, but pass protection has been close to flawless. Whether it’s a defensive line problem or an offensive line strength, there have been less than a handful of sacks recorded in the first three days.

On defense, a lot of newer guys were rotating in and getting reps. It wasn’t your typical 1’s and then 2’s. Coaches were interchanging players who were with the scout team previously. Jeremiah Mitchell, Nate DeRider, Jihad Woods, Marcus Strong and Chima Onyeukwu, saw significant reps in 7-on-7's and team today. From my seat, it seems as if the coaches were teaching these guys what they need to know, then throwing them into the fire to see what they can do. It's a pretty good strategy to find some raw talent and build depth.

Of those guys playing in the fire, Strong was making plays in almost every period. He had a really nice pass break-up in 1-on-1’s against Dezmon Patmon on a fade route that looked like it was going for a touchdown. Then a couple plays later, Strong forced Patmon to slip on a slant route and nearly picked the pass off.

Junior linebacker Onyeukwu also had a good day as he forced back-to-back turnovers in the defenses run fit period. He recovered the second fumble and had the entire front seven hooting and hollering after the play. Most of these guys are turning some heads which might be the reason they are getting more reps.

The defensive line featured a variety of line-ups today with numerous combinations of different players. The starting line changed periodically from Nnamdi Oguayo, Daniel Ekuale (pictured above) Hercules Mata'afa and Dylan Hanser together, to Mata'afa back out at defensive end, Ekuale with Robert Barber in the middle, and Hanser out at rush.

The next line to come in had Tago at rush, Mitchell and Ngalu Tapa in the middle, with Kingston Fernandez at end. All of these guys are mixing and matching and that’s exactly what defensive line coach Joe Salave'a wants.

As coach Salave’a noted in his post-practice interview, fifth-year senior Mitchell is starting to get his feet wet. He was rotating in all day with the 2’s as opposed to working with the scouts yesterday. Mitchell looked aggressive with his hands against the starting O-line and if he can keep it up I think he’ll be a dangerous man on the line because of his size (listed at 6-4, 275).

Junior safety Robert Taylor is starting look more comfortable at safety when he runs with the 2’s. He’s picked off a couple of interceptions already and is also looking like a dangerous return man.

Day Three marked the first day special teams practiced kick-off returns. Taylor had several reps returning kick-offs and looks to be a player that can have big returns. Other guys returning kick-offs were Martin and James Williams. Martin and Taylor seem to fit the bill best. They both have a shiftiness to them along with great vision that can make them very dangerous in the return game.

We haven’t seen any big hits from senior safety Shalom Luani yet, but you know they are coming. As for freshman safety Jalen Thompson, he looks like he is continuing to learn very quickly and is a vocal guy on the field in making calls.

Coaches continued to remind players to stay up and not go to the ground, but most couldn’t resist and would lay a hit anyway. The hits weren’t malicious by any means, but it was enough to ring someone’s bell to let them know that they weren’t going anywhere.

The Cougs are playing physical defense, and it’s a lot to be excited about.

Notes:

-       After just two days of playing quarterback, Justus Rogers has been moved to nickel back. He was wearing No. 23 with the defense. Rogers was put in with the 2’s during a run fit drill where coach Roy Manning was working with him to get in the proper stance and position to play at outside backer.

-       So far in camp, my notes show Erik Powell is 15 for 18 in field goals made during the FG units period. He was 6/6 on Day One, 4/6 Day Two, and 5/6 today. That works out to an 83 percent conversion rate.

-    Defensive back Charleston White and defensive end Garrett McBroom were not present during practice once again.

RELATED STORY: WSU offense excels on Day Two of fall camp

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