Tyler Hilinski presently has the backup role behind Luke Falk on lockdown, but that doesn’t mean that Anthony Gordon or Trey Tinsley can’t give him a run for his money this spring and/or later in fall camp. Throughout 13 TNF scrimmages, each showed that they can be effective and efficient within Mike Leach’s system. In my book, Hilinski has displayed the highest level of comfort and understanding within the offense. He’s more of a risk-taker than Falk, but also has some of the same conservative Falk tendencies as well. It's also important to note Gordon and Tinsley aren’t far behind in my view. If Falk should choose to leave early for the NFL (he's indicated he's coming back but hasn't made an official announcement) Hilinski is definitely the favorite. But it’s not hard to envision Gordon and Tinsley giving him a battle, for Leach to play up the competition angle to the hilt and not name a starter and for a footrace to the opening day finish line between these three to ensue.
The return of all three starting backs next season doesn’t look to be a promising development for Keith Harrington, Romello Harris or Alijah Lee to earn significant playing time next year. But injuries are a part of the game and if I had to guess who would be the next man up, I would put my money on Harrington right now. His experience in the system and explosiveness with the ball in his hands gives him the edge in my book. But Harris is a wildcard, and I suspect we haven’t seen his true potential yet.
In TNF, the youngster taking most of the reps at the X position by far this season has been Dezmon Patmon. At 6-4, 204 pounds, Patmon can go up and make the tough grab, he can run someone over and he can beat the coverage deep over the top. With starter Tavares Martin back next year, Patmon has his work cut out for him as far as being a starter goes – but Leach uses an 8-man receiver rotation and Patmon looks to have an excellent opportunity. He figures to do battle with C.J. Dimry this spring and fall camp, provided Dimry is granted another year of eligibility due to injuries over his career.
It seems clear to me the coaches have been putting their focus into preparing walk on second-year sophomore Brandon Arconado see the field next year. He took the lion’s share of reps at the Y position this year and made the most of them when he got his chances. Indeed, if I had to choose an MVP of TNF this year, Arconado would be among the finalists. But don’t sleep on true freshman walk on Riley Krenz either. The WSU coaches have taken notice in TNF and his opportunities continue to rise and as he’s shown flashes of playmaking ability.
The Cougs have a stud in the making at the H. From my chair, Renard Bell in my book is one of the most athletic players in the 2016 recruiting class. He’ll be a second-year freshman in 2017 after redshirting this season and while he doesn’t have the ideal size for a receiver, his skill set along with his work ethic and attitude on the field are going to take him a long way in this system. Cougar fans will want to keep an eye out for Bell this spring as he fights to earn a key role in the two deeps in the slot.
Opposite of Patmon in TNF at the Z position this season has been Grant Porter. Porter needed some time in working through fall camp and a few game weeks to really get the hang of things. But once he got comfortable, he quickly turned on the jets and started to become a big playmaker in TNF. Porter not only has some of the best hands on the team, but he is extremely explosive after the catch and plays with a lot of passion. If he continues on same path, he seems likely to me to crack the depth chart next season.
Frederick Mauigoa is the most likely candidate in my book to become the Cougs’ starting center in ’17 after watching TNF. Mauigoa is big, smart, athletic and physical, similar to the guy he’d be replacing in senior Riley Sorenson. Mauigoa’s communication at the line and his understanding of the offense is evident. With a void also next to him with Eduardo Middleton graduating, my take is it will probably end up being a three-way competition at right guard between B.J. Salmonson, Noah Osur-Myers and Drew Norvell.
The Cougs lose both Shalom Luani and Parker Henry to graduation (I’m putting Luani here but you could also count him at safety). My guess is that Roy Manning and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch are going to do a lot of experimenting with mixing and matching different players here -- until they find a match. But as far as candidates go, Justus Rodgers and Kameron Powell have taken the most of the reps at nickel in TNF this year. Both have certinaly shown flashes, but both also have a long way to go in my opinion to prove they can hold down a starting role next season.
Both Logan Tago and Dylan Hanser return but the next man up looks to be Mason Vinyard. He’s still undersized but has the frame and athletic ability to grow into a contributor in the future. He’s extremely quick off the ball and shows good footwork in his pass drops, but his lack of size has seen him get beat at times in the pass rush. Vinyard has a similar body type to Nnamdi Oguayo, who made a little noise this season but who also could use some added size for next year.
Between Kingston Fernandez, Nick Begg, Hunter Mattox and Danny Bender, these four clearly have the size and strength to play the defensive end position. Each made their share of big plays in TNF, but I don’t know that one has stood out more than the other. How each develops throughout the offseason will likely determine who will pull away from the rest of the pack and earn playing time next year.
It’s hard to stand out as a defensive tackle when you face the Air Raid offense every week in TNF. But from what I’ve seen, T.J. Fehoko and walk on Taylor Comfort held down the position all year long. Assuming Fehoko gains a favorable outcome in the off field issues, he looks to have the athletic attributes for the position. But he also probably needs to put on more good weight and size if he wants to see the field and contribute on Saturdays next year.
Jahad Woods is by far the most impressive player that I’ve watched in TNF this year. He’s explosive, a sure tackler, a big hitter and most importantly he just makes plays. He’s extremely fluid with his movement, whether it be laterally, downhill or in a back pedal. Woods is just a super athlete, has a natural nose for the football and he doesn’t miss tackles. If I had to make a prediction right now, my guess is that you will see a lot of Woods on the field this next season.
Another very impressive linebacker from the 2016 recruiting class: Chima Onyeukwu. Similar to Woods, he’s a natural athlete with a lot of speed and explosiveness. With Frankie Luvu and Isaac Dotson both returning for their senior campaigns next season, Onyeukwu figures to start the spring third in line. But he’s a JUCO transfer who redshirted, and that’s often a recipe for a corner turn in the second season for a ;backer. He certainly will compete for reps in the spring, stay tuned. A couple other players to watch out for are two walk-ons, Nate DeRider and Dylan Sherman. Both can clearly play at this level and DeRider did some good work filling in for Dotson vs. Cal before he himself got dinged up.
D'Jimon Jones really started to stand out midway into the season to me in TNF. And then he proceeded to get even better over the latter half of the regular season. He’s listed at 5-11, 180 pounds but appears larger in person and there were times in TNF where played like a man among boys. He’s an exceptional athlete and very physical when he comes down to make tackles. I would definitely keep an eye out for Jones to crack the depth chart next season.
The Cougs, in my view, have loads of potential talent developing at the corner spots. Between Marcus Strong, Skyler Thomas and Deion Singleton, all three have balled out this year in TNF. WSU will lose Treshon Broughton to graduation in the spring, so that’s one role that needs to be filled. But based on the performance from the cornerbacks group this season, I wouldn’t be surprised if Grinch open up wide the competition for jobs this offseason at corner. And based on what I saw in TNF, I can see one or more of this trio earning significant roles by the time WSU kicks off the 2017 season.
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