WSU's offense shows off its depth and talents in Day 7

PULLMAN — An energized defensive squad of Cougars cheered and barked before almost every play as the 11-on-11 team session Thursday might have been the most intense yet this spring for Washington State. It wasn’t enough, however, as the Cougar D was outshined by head coach Mike Leach’s offense for the second consecutive practice.

The team portion began with a quick throw into the middle of the field from sophomore backup quarterback Tyler Hilinski (6-foot-3, 217 pounds) to outside receiver Isaiah Johnson-Mack (6-3, 218), a sophomore. By the third play of the session, it was clear the offense was clicking as senior running back Jamal Morrow (5-9, 200), still practicing in a yellow “no-hit” jersey, caught a Hilinski pass for a touchdown of nearly 60 yards.

On the very next play, senior receiver C.J. Dimry (6-5, 213) almost beat sophomore defensive back Marcus Strong (5-9, 175) for another touchdown, but Strong covered the senior well and was able to break up the pass at the last second. Dimry would play well the entire afternoon, running precise routes and making catches in traffic in a display that could prompt Leach to consider moving him up the depth chart.

The first defensive cheer from the sideline came after Hilinski escaped pressure and quickly sent a shovel pass to sophomore running back James Williams (5-11, 192), only for Williams to be met by three defenders and stopped at the line of scrimmage.

Johnson-Mack, the leading contender for the outside “Z” receiving position, continued to shine, often dragging two or three tacklers with him for a couple extra yards after his receptions. (Though, to be fair to the Cougars’ defense, fully finished tackles aren’t scheduled to begin until Saturday morning, per NCAA rules.)

On a play where the secondary’s coverage broke down, Williams escaped from the backfield to make a 30-yard catch. Senior nickel back Kirkland Parker (6-1, 186) recovered well enough to make a play on the running back, but didn’t get to him soon enough to prevent Williams from scoring.

Williams was fearless against the defense the entire practice, at one point meeting sophomore safety Jalen Thompson (6-0, 192) on a run, and instead of scurrying out of bounds to avoid the hit, Williams aggressively lowered his shoulder and forcefully bumped Thompson back, gaining a few extra yards.

In one of the better showings for the defense, senior cornerback Marcellus Pippins (5-10, 176) almost picked off a deep Hilinski throw intended for sophomore wideout Dezmon Patmon (6-4, 211), despite giving up six inches to Patmon. The play was bittersweet for the defense, however, because although he successfully prevented the catch, Pippins probably should’ve come down with the ball. Instead, he let it fly directly through his hands.

Hilinski also showed his willingness get physical with the defense, providing a nice block on a 25-yard Morrow touchdown run. (Though, again in the defense’s defense, so to speak, all quarterbacks wear blue “no hit” jerseys through practice, so it wasn’t like Hilinski had to get low and level anyone to be an effective blocker.)

The offense remained in rhythm, as expected, when starting senior quarterback Luke Falk (6-4, 225) took over. First, the offensive line blew open a running route for Morrow after he caught screen pass. Falk then followed up with a quick pass to Dimry. After securing the ball near the left sideline, the senior wideout nimbly changed direction, and diagonally sprinted past two defenders, from sideline to sideline, reaching the right corner of the end zone.

Junior slot receiver Kyle Sweet (6-0, 192) also had a great day with inside routes and short catches in the middle of the field.

Junior wide receiver Easop Winston (5-11, 183) showed his skill and athleticism with his moves after the catch, through true freshman defensive back Zaire Webb and senior linebacker Nate DeRider were able to team up and corral him at the 10-yard-line on one of Winston’s more explosive plays.

In good news for the defense, junior corner Darrien Molton (5-10, 181) had a good day, at one point breaking up a deep Falk pass intended for the much bigger Johnson-Mack. The sophomore receiver ran a great route, and the pass was both on time and on target, but Molton caused the incompletion by having perfect position to win the jump ball with Johnson-Mack.

On a later play, Molton and junior safety Hunter Dale (5-10, 195) combined to break up a pass intended for Winston.

When sophomore Anthony Gordon (6-3, 189) came in at quarterback for the final portion of the team drill, the superb athletes of the Cougars’ offensive backfield and receiving corps continued to show their advantage.

True freshman wide receiver Anthony White Jr. (6-1, 171) beat smaller sophomore defensive backs Josh Emmy (5-8, 180) and Hayden Schmidt (5-8, 170) for a pair of touchdowns from Gordon.

The offensive line looked solid all day, with the two stars of the unit, junior Andre Dillard (6-5, 310) and senior Cody O’Connell (6-9, 370), leading the way with great pass protection and wide holes for all four featured running backs.

Speaking of the offensive line, Thursday was probably the best day of the spring for sophomore Noah Osur-Myers (6-4, 307), currently second on the depth chart at center but looking to move up ahead of projected starter (and fellow sophomore) Frederick Mauigoa (6-3, 305). Osur-Myers’ snaps weren’t perfect, but they were always on-target — a drastic improvement from the past few practices when he would often snap it too high for the quarterback to handle. Additionally, his blocking was effective all afternoon.

In earlier drills for the secondary, defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch got on Thompson for having poor balance. In the drill, Grinch would hold the ball as if he were the quarterback, and the defensive backs would back-pedal, changing direction based both on where the ball is placed on the quarterback’s body, as well as the movement of the quarterback’s eyes.

At defensive back, Zaire Webb looked especially good, though Grinch called him out early on for reacting and committing too much with his shoulders before the ball was released. Later on, however, Webb improved.

Looking great while covering deep routes by running backward, and then catching a pass thrown by Grinch and immediately changing direction to return the interception, Webb earned intense praise from the defensive coordinator. At one point, it seemed like Grinch was yelling “Nice job, Zaire! Nice job, Zaire!” as much or even more than his normal mantras of “Speed! Speed! Speed! Speed!” Or the simpler “Eyes!”

Schmidt also impressed Grinch with his solid tackling of a rolling foam donut after getting past an outside blocker.

In coverage drills for his crew, linebacker coach Ken Wilson was running his players through his preferred method of reacting to a combination of routes.

The point was how to simultaneously read the developing routes of both inside and outside receivers, and how to decide which potential pass-catcher to cover, and which to let the secondary handle. “First numbers you see — that’s your guy,” Wilson told them.

In a show of the value of experience, senior Isaac Dotson (6-1, 224) seemed to catch on right away, while freshman Dillon Sherman (6-1, 213) was much slower, having to re-do the exercise for Wilson a few times. (In later drills against the offense, however, Sherman looked much more focused, especially when he intercepted a Gordon pass intended for Grant Porter (6-0, 184), a redshirt freshman.)

Redshirt freshman Jahad Woods (6-0, 216) also looked great, earning praise from Wilson for his quick (and correct) decisions.

On the defensive line, senior Garret McBloom (6-3, 280) did well against the offense in drills. Junior Kingston Fernandez also seemed to please defensive line coach Jeff Phelps, at one point slipping through blockers to stop junior running back Keith Harrington (5-8, 194) behind the line of scrimmage.

Noticeably absent from practice was junior defensive lineman Ngalu Tapa (6-2, 323), who will be in and out practice this spring as he improves his grades, according to Leach.

In special teams drills, long snappers junior Kyle Celli (6-1, 240) and redshirt freshman Jack Haney (6-0, 226) took turns snapping and place-holding, as sophomore Brett Schafer (5-9, 174) kicked field goals from up to 40 yards. 

As the defense joined the offense at Martin Stadium, some of the special teams players remained on Rogers Field to take turns punting. Schafer, senior kicker Mitchell Cox (6-0, 193), and a pair of redshirt freshmen — kicker Jack Crane (6-2, 190) and punter Tommy Park (5-10, 182) — seemed to be having a friendly competition, playing whatever the punters’ version of basketball’s “horse” might be called. Of the four, Park seemed to have the strongest leg.

Not to be left out, Celli and Haney also got some punts off, but they were, as one would think, much shorter than those of the true punters and kickers.

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