Cougar Football: Position battles heat up for WSU in Lewiston

LEWISTON – Day Eight of fall camp for Washington State saw players and coaches fine tuning some pieces to the puzzle before they put it all together for tomorrow's scrimmage. There continues to be a logjam at running back with four guys working hard for a place at the top of the depth chart.

The Lewiston portion of fall camp will conclude Sunday with the first team scrimmage. Mike Leach made the decision to end the Saturday session a little early allowing coaches additional time for preparation.

It's been a productive fall camp thus far according to Leach. This roster is now filled with players his staff has recruited and clearly have elevated the WSU football program. Over the first week plus, it's plain to see this roster has more athletic and football talent than any other since Leach arrived in Pullman back in 2012.

"It's real competitive," says Leach about his team's progress. "I thought we got better. I thought we did a good job pushing through. We've got more bodies and more speed"

With shorter periods, players took fewer reps than usual to keep them fresh for the scrimmage. The defense stayed sharp and active today, but offense got the W in team period after Luke Falk threw back-to-back touchdowns to finish the day.

Because today’s action on the field was so brief, I’ll run through some highlights and takeaways that I’ve observed throughout fall camp:

Biggest position battle(s): Rush linebacker and running back

Leach and running backs coach Jim Mastro both confirmed in post-practice interviews that there will be a three-man rotation in the backfield on offense. There is a problem Mastro is concerned with but it's one coaches typically only dream about. He's got four players (Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow, Keith Harrington and James Williams-pictured above) that probably could start for any team in the Pac-12.

“If Leach says its three, its three. We’ll just let it play out. Right now its flip a coin. All four of those guys are doing some great things.”

At the end of the day, one of the four will be watching the other guys from the sidelines. So, who will make the cut? We'll just have to see how things play out over the rest of fall camp.

At rush, Logan Tago has worked back into the starting group. Both Tago and Dylan Hanser have had a really good camp. They both play with different skill sets. At first it appeared Hanser had the position on lock, but it's difficult to predict what the coaches will do on a given day. Today, Tago was the starter and Hanser ran with the two’s. As Coug fans saw with Kache Palacio and Ivan McLennan last season, it's possible these two will rotate a lot to be used in different game situations. Regardless, a clear starter will be defined as we get closer to the season opener.

Biggest playmaker(s): Z (outside) receivers

With Gabe Marks taking just a few reps in Lewiston, Isaiah Johnson has stepped up and shown that he too can produce big on the outside. Marks and Johnson have very different playing styles, but what they both have in common is their ability to outplay and outmatch their opponent. This promises to be a lethal attack at Z this season. I like Marks more in the screen game and in 1-on-1 match ups. Johnson can beat you deep and use his size to his advantage. Opponents will be challenged to find ways to keep the ball away from both of them. The danger in focusing on WSU's outside receivers is simple. The Cougs have a plethora of talented running backs and other skilled receivers to go to.

Most improved player: Backup quarterback Hilinski

From my view, Tyler Hilinski is now running the offense nearly as well as Falk. That wasn’t my impression on the first day of camp. Hilinski has made huge strides and is firing on all cylinders right now. You can tell that he is comfortable and relaxed with the ball by delivering great passes. Without any real game experience, it will be interesting to see how Hilinski would do if he is called upon this season. Should the Cougs manage to rack up points and put teams away this year, its possible that Hilinski will get his shot to prove what he can do.

Most improved position group: Defensive line

As the days rolled along in Lewiston, the defensive line picked up more momentum on each day. Sacks and run stops became more frequent. They gave up some big runs early, but made adjustments and started to shut the running game down. I think that this group still has a long way to go. After shuffling and trying different combinations up front, Hercules Mata'afa, Daniel Ekuale, Robert Barber, Logan Tago, Kingston Fernandez, Dylan Hanser, Ngalu Tapa, Nnamdi Oguayo, and Jeremiah Mitchell are the guys firmly in the D-line rotation. They are collapsing the pocket with more force and are simply closing any holes for running backs. Granted, they have only faced the Air Raid run attack, but as it is, they have progressed tremendously through eight days.

Most aggressive defender(s): Parker Henry and Shalom Luani

Fifth-year senior Parker Henry plays with fire and tremendous effort on every single play. Part of the reason why he won the starting role last season was simply he’s so reliable on the field. Henry understands what the coaches are trying to do then consistenly does his job well. He doesn’t panic in tight situations and often makes a big play when others might not. By taking on defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s mentality of making the ball the most prized possession of a defender, Henry seems to look at every play as another opportunity to get a takeaway. He attacks and attacks, intent on making the ball pop out.

In my eyes, senior safety Shalom Luani is arguably one of the best players on the team. He has a natural nose for the football and can cover receivers better than many cornerbacks. Luani brings a big punch when he makes a tackle. He's another guy playing in Grinch's defense who loves to see the football come loose. Coug fans saw last year just how explosive Luani can be, but now a year better, he’s flying around with even more tempo. He has that knockout power as hitter and can go up and snag the football in the air. That's a great combination for a defensive player.

Biggest question mark: X (outside) receiver

Aside from the running back drama and battle at rush, the biggest question mark with this team is the depth at X right now. Fifth-year senior CJ Dimry, freshman Dezmon Patmon, and freshman Grant Porter have all seen reps with the 2’s and are fighting for a backup role to sophomore Tavares Martin. Dimry has shown a lot of positives in his play so far. Patmon is right there behind him making plays and growing in the offense. Porter has also had his share of reps, but isn’t seeing the field as much as the others right now. He’s a talented receiver and could be in the mix this year or could be fitted for a redshirt. Only time will tell.

Coaching observation: Receiver coaches

There is a change in the intensity brought to the practice field by the two new WR position coaches hired by Mike Leach following the departure of David Yost and Graham Harrell. JaMarcus Shephard and Dave Nichol bring a different coaching style and mentality to the team. Both guys are extremely passionate out on the field and constantly in the ears of their players. Shepard is by far the most vocal coach on this staff and he makes it very clear he means business. Nichol is a guy that speaks to his players with confidence. He knows the Air Raid offense extremely well and knows what he’s talking about when he’s coaching his guys up. Though they're first year coaches with WSU, I see them bring a lot of energy and knowledge out to practice every day.

Highlights from Day Eight:

-       John Thompson made an impressive one-handed catch on the sidelines during the 7-on-7 period.

-       Hunter Dale had a nice pass break-up. He cut off a throw by Falk but dropped the interception.

-       River Cracraft put a move on Kirkland Parker in man-to-man coverage, caught the ball and turned up the field for a big gain.

-       Isaiah Johnson caught a very tough TD throw over Darrien Molton on a vertical route. He followed that up with a TD in the red-zone after Falk scrambled away from a potential sack.

-       Hilinski took off for a big run. Thankfully, quarterbacks can’t be hit in practice because if they could, it might have been bad for him near the end of the run.

-       Tavares Martin brought in a nice catch over the middle and then made defenders miss him for a big gain.

-       Robert Lewis caught a goal-line touchdown from Falk on the last play of the day.

RELATED: 3 takeaways: Day Eight of WSU fall camp


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