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Washington State receiving corps has another star in the making

LEWISTON - Just like the weather, things are warming up at WSU fall camp and you can bet it's going to get hotter. The Cougs strapped up their full gear for the first time. There were a lot of positives but none was bigger than the impression made by a freshman wide receiver.

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Isaiah Johnson (pictured above) looked like a man among boys today, which is saying a lot for a guy who graduated high school early to come play college ball. The former Miami and Florida commit said after practice that he feels like this is the best place for him and is happy with his decision.

“There’s a whole bunch of chances. If you drop a ball, you can come back and catch another one. They are just going to keep throwing it so I just love it," Johnson said about the Air Raid offense.

Johnson was rolling today in 1-on-1 periods, skelly, and in the team period. He showed really good body control and soft hands as most of his catches came from fade routes or back shoulder throws.

Johnson was giving sophomore corner Darrien Molton a tough time all day today. In case you may have forgotten, Molton was a freshman All-American last season and is arguably the Cougs' top corner. Johnson caught a slant, then a fade on back-to-back plays in 1-on-1’s that had Molton getting an earful from defensive coordinator and secondary coach Alex Grinch.

In the team period, Johnson scored a touchdown on a throw over the middle where Molton had him man-to-man. Molton slipped right when the ball was caught and Johnson was off to an easy stride into the end zone. His best play on the day came when he ran a simple hitch route. Tyler Hilinski completed the pass to Johnson, but when he stuck his route he had freshman defensive back D'Jimon Jones on his heels. Johnson ran straight at him with a big stiff arm that shoved Jones to the sideline. The players and staff erupted on the big play. With Gabe Marks and Johnson listed 1-2 on the depth chart at the Z, Cougar fans could be treated to a never-ending threat this season at the Z.

C.J. Dimry had a much improved day today as he showed again how he can be a valuable asset at the X. Dimry had a great opening day of camp, but his hands have been somewhat of an issue since he arrived in Pullman. However, that wasn't the case today. On Day Five, he made sure that he came down with every ball thrown his way.

Not only did he make catches that you would expect a 6-5 guy to make, they were more like statements. Dimry would go up and come down with the ball like his job was on the line. Exciting stuff to see, and great that he can use his height to full advantage against corners.

This group of receivers are really coming together, both inside and outside, as a unit.

"I like 'em all," said inside receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard after practice. "Sometimes you want someone to emerge and take over, but at the same time having depth is important for every football team in America. I think we have that right now."

The coaches are working with rotations to determine who will get more reps. They should develop into a solid group by the time the season begins Sep. 3.

Luke Falk played well today though he didn’t have the kind performance you expect from a guy who led the nation in passing last season. He made a lot of great throws, but at times looked like he was trying to do to much to get the ball down field. During his drive in the team period, there were several plays where he waited and waited, only to run from a potential sack and throw a prayer out to a check down route. Falk got off to a slow start, but finished strong finding touchdowns on the last three plays of the day.

We know that Falk can find open receivers. Today may have been a little more difficult because it was a ‘6’ day which means a lot of vertical routes.

But holding onto the ball too long is never the best answer. No one wants to see Falk get hit the way he did last season. It does seem he still needs to improve in this area in my book.

The offensive line made big strides in Day Five. Now that full pads are on the big guys up front are beginning to assert themselves. Granted, early on this camp they may be giving up a few too many sacks, but the run game is really working right now.

Gerard Wicks, James Williams and Jamal Morrow broke out into the open on Day Five and with some space to work. In the two years I’ve been here, I haven’t seen a whole lot of that. Linebackers are getting washed into the trenches and the holes are just opening up for the backs.

Wicks ripped off a big run that easily went for more than 15 yards and before he was wrapped up by sophomore Hunter Dale at the safety level.

During the team period I counted three run plays in a row that were stopped by Molton and Shalom Luani. If corners and safeties are making tackles on run plays, that’s definitely a good sign for the offense (and something that won't make the defensive coaches happy).

As for the second string of offensive lineman, the rotation is starting to look more consistent after a hectic start to camp with a lot of movement.  From left to right on Wednesday was: LT Liam Ryan, LG Cedric Bigge-Duren, C Frederick Mauigoa, RG Amosa Sakaria and RT Josh Watson RT.

Ryan, Mauigoa and Watson are all true freshmen.

Nevertheless, they were part of the second-string crew opening up big holes for the backs on Day Five. I think its safe to say that the coaches have found a good group that they can work with. They didn’t get pushed around as much today as they did yesterday. That's the steady improvement you look for as camp goes on.

Consistency is obviously the objective on both sides of the ball, and I think that this defense is focused on that. Mental mistakes were apparent at times, but players continued to give maximum effort and ran hard to the ball no matter what. The D would get outplayed for a few plays and seem as if they were falling apart, then show flashes of excellence and make some incredible plays.

The starting rotation on the D-line today was: DE Hercules Mata'afa, d-tackles Robert Barber and Daniel Ekuale with Dylan Hanser at Rush.

In my view, Hanser highlighted the day for the defense. His motor just kept going and you could see it in his demeanor after he was put with the starting D-line.

Hanser was on a hot streak during Falk’s team drive. To start, he made an outstanding tackle on screen play that bounced outside of the cornerback but ultimately went for no gain. A few plays later, he batted down a pass from Falk that could have gone for a big gain.

Hanser and Mata’afa also surprised each other a couple of times when they simultaneously met the ball carrier in the backfield. Hanser is arguably one of the fastest guys on the team. If you get the chance to see him in a three-point stance outside on the edge, its quite a sight. He looks more like a guy in a sprinter's stance, except he’s 6-4 and carrying 240 pounds. Hanser on Wednesday looked like a force to be reckoned with this season in coming off the edge.

Barber is becoming a force on the D-line as well five days into camp. On Wednesday he recorded several tackles-for-loss and was constantly plugging up the middle on run plays.

His backup at the nose, third-year sophomore Ngalu Tapa, was also making plays when he was out there. He showed how he can move his weight (319 pounds) around today. Tapa pursued all the way across the field to make a play on a screen that was thrown to the outside receiver. That was fun to watch.

My thumbnail view of the d-line five days in? These defensive linemen play hard and play with passion. The rotation seems to be working now but the depth just needs to be established and solidified.

The four-man rotation at corner right now is Molton, Treshon Broughton, Marcellus Pippins and Marcus Strong. They all bring something different to the table, and all have their kinks to work out as well.

Cornerback is a tough position and can be really frustrating when you face the Air Raid offense day in and day out. But as last season showed, playing against the Air Raid in practice isn’t the worst thing. These guys will be tougher in pass defense once the 2016 campaign begins, having gone against the WSU receivers all fall camp and all season long.

At safety, Luani and Jalen Thompson are holding it down with the 1’s. Behind them, Robert Taylor, Dale, Charleston White and Willie Roach are rotating to find out who can keep those back-up roles. It's safe to say Taylor will be in the mix - Leach raved about him after practice today, saying he made a play at safety on Tuesday that he'd never seen before in all his years of coaching.

With Taylor moving out to corner Wednesday and White getting ready to put pads on Thursday, there will be a highly competitive position battle for playing time in the secondary moving forward. Assuming White is back at safety, and with so many other guys who can play at this level, my guess is that there will be more rotation in the secondary than we saw last season.

There’s a lot of talent at the defensive back position. It's no surprise that the most consistent guys will take the most reps. It should be fascinating to watch it all play out in fall camp and beyond.

Overall, the team looks like they are improving with each day. But it’s tough to truly gauge how "good" either side of the ball is right now. Like everyone else, I guess I'll have to wait for Sept. 3 for the definitive word. But I can say this: if what I've seen through five days of fall camp is any indication, Cougar fans are going to enjoy watching this team.

NOTABLE NOTE:

- Nickel Kirkland Parker made the play of the day on Wednesday, a highlight reel interception on a throw to the end zone that sophomore receiver Kyle Sweet had in his hands. As they went to the ground, Parker ripped the ball out and came up with the pick.

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