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WSU's 3 biggest position battles this spring from the viewpoint of a guy who watched the Cougs practice all last year

PULLMAN - Talk about great theater. Spring ball at Washington State kicks off on March 23 and there are three position battles I expect to be particularly compelling out on the Palouse: nickel, wide receiver and center. After all, the Cougs are replacing at those spots graduating seniors Shalom Luani, Gabe Marks and Riley Sorenson. That's a whole lot of star power. So how might it play it out in spring ball? Glad you asked.

1. Nickel
In my book, the biggest question mark of all going into spring ball revolves around which player can fill Luani's role at the nickel spot.  Defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Alex Grinch is known to move players around the defensive backfield depending on speed, quickness and athleticism. But the question is which of WSU's young defensive backs (some of whom were recruited specifically for this position) will fit best at nickel.

If I had to make a way-too-early prediction of who will emerge this spring AND in fall ball AND who will ultimately start at the nickel spot come Week One, I would have to go with D'Jimon Jones right now.

I watched pretty much every Cougar practice last year and during Jones’ true freshman campaign he spent redshirting, he showed some Luani-type qualities. He’s extremely quick, agile, aggressive, reactive, and best of all - he brings a punch on every hit. He plays a lot bigger than his 5-11, 180 pounds.

Jones has a lot of raw talent, but no playing experience on Saturdays. And neither does Justus Rogers, but he's a load at 6-2, 215 and will undoubtedly get plenty of turns this spring at nickel to show what he can do. Even Robert Taylor could be a factor here. He started nine games at safety in '16 but could follow a similar path as Luani -- first lining up at safety at WSU in '15 before starting nine games at nickel in '16.

At the end of the day, someone has to step up and be a leader here.  As a former defensive back at WSU, I see the nickel position as one of, if not the most, important positions on this defense. The nickel is the hybrid, do-it-all type of defender. They have defensive back qualities with linebacker instincts and can lay an all-important hat on a pulling guard if need be.  They are often the difference between whether an offense moves the chains or not.  This will be an extremely exciting battle to watch for this spring.

2. Z receiver
On offense, this is a big one. Every Coug fan I’ve talked to in recent weeks continues to ask the same question: Who is going to replace Marks? Who is going to take the lion's share of targets and receptions to lead the Air Raid offense?  That's not an easy question to answer right now.

We’ve seen Coug receivers bounce around quite a bit -- inside to outside, left to right. One thing we do know is that Isaiah Johnson-Mack (pictured above) got a fair share of reps at Z already in his true freshman season in '16. 

But Johnson-Mack doesn’t necessarily compare apples-to-apples to Marks in terms of skill set. 'Johnny-Mack' is big, strong and athletic. But as a true freshman last year from my chair, he lacked the same quickness, overall speed and route running capabilities as Marks. And Marks took full advantage of those skills in becoming the most prolific pass catcher in the history of the Pac-12.

Johnson-Mack will almost definitely head into spring ball as the No. 1 Z receiver, but C.J. DimryGrant Porter and Kyrin Priester could all compete for the Cougs' No. 1 receiver position.  And in looking ahead, incoming true freshman Jamire Calvin could also be possibly in the starting mix when fall ball arrives.

I expect the Z to turn into a real battle royale this spring, with multiple candidates in play.

3. Center
Similar to losing Luani at nickel, the loss of Sorenson at center (36 starts the past three seasons) leaves the Cougs with another big question mark, this one in the middle of the o-line. 

Frederick Mauigoa showed last year that he can hold his own in practice, and he got his feet wet with four appearances last year.  But spot duty in four contests is still a lack of game experience and in my book and it leaves the job wide open this spring. Based on what I saw over the course of last year, B.J. Salmonson would be the closest in competition to Mauigoa heading into spring.

Salmonson, who will be a fifth-year senior, as a reserve offensive lineman has become more and more reliable over the years as his number has been called. He has game reps and also has experience taking reps at center in practice. The question here at the end of the day is whether Mike Leach and o-line coach Clay McGuire will want to stick with a veteran player, or take a chance on developing a young Mauigoa with the hopes that he can take on some of the best interior defensive linemen in the Pac-12.

Mauigoa is big, strong and athletic. But taking on defensive tackles/nose guards requires more than just strength and athleticism. Spring ball should be the first big test to see if the second-year center is capable of winning those battles on an consistent basis.  Look for Mauigoa and Salmonson do duke it out as the spring progresses.

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