5 things we learned in Lewiston about Washington State

AFTER NINE DAYS in Lewiston, a degree of clarity has emerged on the 2016 Washington State football team. We asked CF.C's Skyler Cracraft, who has watched every rep of fall camp, to break it all down.

1. Questions remain on the Cougar d-line
"I've given them a good amount of credit in my reports but it's a question mark for sure and for two main reasons: 1) they're going against a spread every day and 2) they have a lot of familiarity with the Air Raid," said Cracraft. "So the question is what happens when they go against, say, a big Stanford o-line with the power run game. They're not a huge d-line, so will they get moved around? 

"It's not as if they're playing badly or anything like that, they're flying around and making plays. But they're not going to be facing a spread, Air Raid type offense week in and week out once the season gets going.  Hercules Mata'afa is obviously a good one, but he'll be a first-time starter too and have a lot more snaps to play.

"All in all, I don't know if they're going to be as good as the d-line was last year based on what I've seen in the early going. They could be. I just haven't seen enough to convince me they will be. Ngalu Tapa is getting solid reps behind Robert Barber (6-3, 305) at the nose. Tapa is a dump truck at 6-2, 319 pounds and I like Tapa's play, I think he's going to be an important asset to help spell Barber.  Jeremiah Mitchell is getting good reps with the 2's and Garrett McBroom just joined the team Sunday in Lewiston - so after he is able to put on the pads, it will be important to see how he fits in."

2. There is unusual versatility in the defensive secondary
"The defensive backs are really stacked and most of the guys can play both spots at corner and safety," said Cracraft.  "They predominantly play their position but guys like safety Shalom Luani, he can also play nickel if the need arises. Charleston White can play either safety or corner. Robert Taylor (pictured above) can play either spot and has been the starting corner opposite Darrien Molton lately. And don't forget about corner Treshon Broughton, by the way. Taylor has been starting at one corner spot but Broughton, who was at nickel last year, has been an absolute baller this fall camp at cornerback.

"And Marcellus Pippins is still pretty good too. He hasn't had a bad camp by any means, other guys are just having more standout plays. Deion Singleton has missed a little time so it will be interesting to see what he does in the weeks to come before the opener and where he fits into the mix. Defensive back Marcus Strong has quietly had a good camp to date, he's a true freshman that bears watching for the rest of fall ball.

"Throughout the defensive backfield in the two-deeps, there are guys that are interchangeable and can play multiple spots. That's somewhat unusual because you don't always see safeties who have fluid enough hips to turn and go as a corner, but WSU looks to have those guys. The secondary is one of the strongest positions on the team, there are so many guys that are really good in coverage, really good in their footwork. They're aggressive and don't let anyone behind them and they're doing exactly what (DBs coach and d-coordinator) Alex Grinch says. 

"Even when plays are starting to break down or a guy is wide open, there are still things you're coached to do if a play gets out of hand. And those guys are doing all those things and limiting the damage as much as possible when that happens. They're not giving up the big plays, they're really coached well.  When you're in the meeting room with Coach Grinch, you're learning both spots. A lot of the concepts are similar, you're just covering a different guy."

3. The staring o-line is looking more and more solid
"The starting five have improved a lot over nine days, I think it's safe to say that starting o-line can be pretty good this season," said Cracraft. "They've been providing very good protection of late and I think they can be as good if not better than last year. As I said earlier, I've given the d-line a lot of credit for the pressure they've brought but there haven't been a whole lot of sacks. And the running game just looks different than it has been.

"I think the coaches have tweaked a few things there in the run game - I don't know every single one of their run schemes but it looks different and the holes are opening up more and more.  With the second-string offensive line, there are still definite questions. The starting offensive line looks set with LT Andre Dillard, LG Cody O'Connell, C Riley Sorenson, RG Eduardo Middleton and RT Cole Madison. But there are 5-6 guys who are still fighting for those spots behind them with the 2's.  In my mind, center Frederick Mauigoa looks to be the best performing freshman offensive lineman to date.

4. With addition of true freshman, Cougs could be very dangerous on the outside
"I don't want to jump too early to any conclusions at outside receiver," said Cracraft. "But Isaiah Johnson could be one of the best receivers on the team by the time this season ends. I think he's going to be a freak. Physically, he doesn't look like a freshman, he looks like a senior. He has had some stretches where he's just been dominant out there and he's done it at times against the Cougs' best corner in Molton. 

"Tavares Martin has shown those flashes at the X, I'm waiting to see more consistency from him and more of that big playmaking ability, though.  I think he's going to be good, he just needs more (seasoning) and my take is that might have to happen in the games. And of course, Gabe Marks is Gabe Marks."

5. Which true freshman/WSU rookies might play early?
"I think a good number of true freshman are going to see playing time, led by safety Jalen Thompson and Johnson," said Cracraft.  "And Taylor is a lock to play in his first season in Pullman out of junior college. Outside receiver Dezmon Patmon looks like a guy who will travel and get reps in games, but I also think he needs to work on his hands. I've seen a lot of body catches from him but he also runs really good routes and has great size at 6-4 and good body control.

"I think wideout Renard Bell might be a guy who you will see travel. He might not get a ton of reps in games but he might be a guy who you see get in there a little bit. If one of the starting guards or tackles gets dinged up, my guess would be B.J. Salmonson as the first guy off the bench but if center Riley Sorenson were to have to come out for a few plays, I think it might be Mauigoa who would come in. 

"Linebacker Jahad Woods is a freakish athlete and I think you may see him travel too. Other guys who could redshirt or maybe travel in Year One (too early to tell) include Strong and D'Jimon Jones at the corner spot. Both those guys are getting in there for reps. I'd say Strong probably has a better shot at playing this year than Jones.

"He's not a freshman but like Taylor he is a WSU rookie coming in from junior college - linebacker Chima Onyeukwu is getting some reps and he's looking fairly good. He's on the light side at 6-2, 210 and I don't think we've seen all his speed yet as he's adjusting to the new scheme and defense. Woods is the rookie linebacker that has caught my eye most when it comes to athleticism. But Onyeukwu is right there, whether it's at Rush or WIL."

Honorable mentions:
1. This is an unusual fall camp for a Mike Leach-team. Not only is there a clear-cut starting QB in Luke Falk, the No. 2 already looks set as well in Tyler Hilinski. Falk has been his usual self, Cracraft said. "The defensive backs know these routes inside and out so it might be hard for Falk to strike deep down the field but he's still being smart, with lots of check downs and shorter throws. But once they get into games, the opposing teams can't simulate this 2016 Air Raid with their scout teams. It's just not possible. I think Falk is in line for a great year. He's really making good decisions," said Cracraft.

2. The team chemistry is rock solid, said Cracraft. "Everyone is so bought in, even more than last year and I think that's in part them having felt the success with the nine wins. They're flying around, paying close attention to everything the coaches said.  They want to be way better than last year."

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