1. WR Kyle Sweet (Jr., 6-0, 190, pictured above)
During Sweet’s first two seasons at both the inside H and Y receiver positions, he's been a reliable pass catcher who has also shown glimpses of great playmaking ability. But from my chair, Sweet hasn’t even scratched the surface of his true potential -- and that needs to happen this spring and later heading into fall camp.
Sweet, mostly as a reserve, has posted 579 yards on 48 catches with three scores in two seasons. Those aren’t staggering numbers but look a little deeper and you'll see 12.1 yards per catch (including a team-best 13.2 ypc in 2016) and an inside receiver who still has tremendous room for growth.
As a guy who's had a fair share of touches and game reps, Sweet's days of being a young, developing backup are over. This spring represents an opportunity to step up and take on the role that River Cracraft held down with such assertion - the sure-handed guy who made the catch when the Cougs had to have it. But if Sweet is to be that type of player in 2017, it comes with a sense of pride and leadership that will be forged this offseason.
Sweet's production and leadership skills will surely be something that the coaches keep a close eye on this spring. And not just when he’s on the field -- but in the weight room, during meetings, and anything and everything outside of football.
2. WR C.J. Dimry (R-Sr., 6-5, 201)
The 2017 receiving corps is without a doubt one of the biggest question marks for WSU heading into spring ball this year after the departure of Gabe Marks and Cracraft. But it doesn’t have to remain one if a few key players in this unit step up and play to their capabilities. Dimry is one of the guys in that group.
To me, Dimry has NFL talent -- Cougar fans have not yet seen it in games but I’ve watched him perform over and over again in practices, scrimmages and Thursday Night Football sessions since he arrived to WSU in 2015. When Dimry is on his game, no one can man him up, cover him, or even bring him down when he’s got the ball in his hands. So it’s about time he breaks that loose during the season.
Dimry, who recently was awarded a sixth year due to injuries over the course of his career, is capable of a big year. I know that’s saying a lot about a guy who in 11 games last season made 12 catches for 141 yards. But I haven’t seen a wide receiver on the WSU roster the past 4-5 years who has made the kind of 'wow' plays he has in practice.
The biggest challenge for Dimry this spring and offseason will be to not only stay healthy, but to keep his confidence at a high level. Dimry has had his share of ups and downs, whether it be from injuries or limited reps in practice and my take is that's translated to the field in the form of an occasional dropped pass or missed opportunities. If he can win the mental game, I think the sky is the limit for him. One way to do that: an attitude this spring to not only take over a starting role, but to think of himself as the No. 1 receiving threat for the Cougs.
3. NT Ngalu Tapa (R-Jr., 6-2, 319)
The Cougs are shifting towards lighter, more athletic d-linemen. That means the big-bodied Tapa this spring needs to prove his skills set remain the Cougs' best choice to man the middle. He, like all of the d-linemen this spring, have a fresh start with Joe Salave'a moving on. And that also puts a premium on each player to quickly adapt to new coach Jeff Phelps.
Now, WSU has other interior d-linemen that can play some nose as well as some three-shade, but Tapa remains the only true nose tackle listed on the roster. Two ways to look at it: that adds pressure on a guy who has only just started to find his way into the defensive line mix, or, he can carve himself out a unique niche.
One other important note and I've seen it up close: Tapa is not your typical 6-2, 319-pounder. Tapa is very athletic and can move extremely well. For a guy his size, he's surprisingly fast and has above average lateral movement. The biggest question is how he would perform with starter reps. It’s one thing to be able to eat up gaps here and there, but to get penetration and move bodies around play after play is a whole other level.
Come spring ball, there is no doubt that Tapa’s durability and toughness will be tested. A corner-turning spring from tapa would be just what WSU needs.
4. CB Darrien Molton (Jr., 5-10, 175)
The Cougs are in great need of a lockdown corner after ranking 93rd nationally in pass efficiency defense last season. After Molton’s true freshman campaign, many thought he would become that guy in '16. But it didn’t turn out that way. That’s not to say that Molton had a bad season, he was still the Cougs' best corner, but it was apparent he has work to do to become one of the Pac-12's best.
With two full seasons as the Cougs' No. 1 corner under his belt, Molton has a ton of experience going head-to-head with some of the top receivers in the nation. It’s time for Molton to take that next step -- and I don’t think he’s far from it.
Molton has the speed, athleticism and discipline that it takes to be a shutdown corner, but needs to limit mistakes and find ways to put himself in better position against receivers deep. He’s very consistent with his technique, but has a tendency to get out of position which leads to pass interference calls, or an occasional deep ball over the top.
It's not omnipresent but when you rewind the tape and look at some of Molton’s 'bad' plays, you see small hiccups and some missed opportunities. Specifically as a former DB, I’m talking about attacking the football when it’s in the air, and staying on top of his man deep down the field. Simple to say but hard to execute. The thing about those plays are that Molton knows exactly what went wrong and where he needs to get better. It's just a matter of doing it. One other point: WSU figures to have more speed and athleticism at the receiver positions in '17, and that should mean Molton’s “lock down” presence will be tested.
5. Safety Jalen Thompson (So., 6-0, 183)
Thompson should be fun to watch both this spring and in the years to come. Why? I see a lot of Deone Bucannon-type qualities in his style of play, build and athleticism. As a true freshman, Thompson started every game in for the Cougs in 2016, totaling 51 tackles and seven pass break ups. But just as we’ve seen with Molton and others, there were also a lot of plays left out on the field from Thompson.
But an argument can be made Thompson is the most explosive and athletic player on the defense. His aggressiveness in coming downhill to make tackles, as well as his willingness to go up and make plays on the football, is where I think he needs to improve the most. As a second-year starter, youth is no longer an excuse, and Thompson has to prove that he can not only play with the best, but be a leader as the sole signal caller for the Cougar defense.
On top of that, Thompson in my view needs to get bigger if he's going to realize his potential. To be fair, Bucannon didn't fill out until his final two seasons at WSU but with a frame similar to Bucannon's, it will be intriguing to see if he's added some good weight over the winter. Bottom line, I think Thompson with a little more sock can be a very similar force for the Cougs a la Bucannon.
I also know that defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Alex Grinch is extremely high on the second-year safety. Now it’s just a matter of proving he's an elite defensive back at the Pac-12 level. This spring and offseason will look to answer whether Thompson is ready to take on a bigger role for the Cougs in '17.
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