With too many receivers, Cougars instead use freshman Grant Porter on defense, and like what they see

PULLMAN — Washington State coach Mike Leach wasn’t lying when he told reporters the Cougars have great depth in the receiving corps.

WSU is so deep at the position, in fact, Alex Grinch’s defensive secondary is thinking about poaching redshirt freshman receiver Grant Porter (6-foot-0, 184 pounds), who shined as a defensive back in practice Thursday after not getting too many spring snaps on the offensive side of the ball.

Porter’s first big play came when running back Jamal Morrow (5-9, 200) caught a pass from sophomore quarterback Tyler Hilinski (6-3, 217) along the right side of the field. Morrow caught the ball in stride and was running to the end zone, appearing to have beaten the Cougs’ secondary. It wasn’t meant to be, however, as Porter caught up to the senior back and forced him to fumble the ball, resulting in the first turnover of the afternoon — and loud cheers from the defensive players along the sideline.

Toward the end of the practice, Porter broke up a pass from backup sophomore quarterback Anthony Gordon (6-3, 189) by jumping up and knocking the ball out of the hands of junior receiver Easop Winston (5-11, 183).

Winston would get even on the next play, though, blowing past Porter’s coverage for a catch. So, the freshman wasn’t perfect on his first afternoon with the defense, but he did more than just play the ball, as you might expect from a receiver. Porter was fantastic in making timely tackles against ball carriers when coming back to the play from the weak side of the field.

The secondary was solid all day — neither as explosive nor as sloppy as it appeared during practice Tuesday afternoon. The second turnover came when Hilinski tried to force a pass to sophomore wideout Isaiah Johnson-Mack (6-3, 218), only to have the ball land in the hands of senior cornerback Marcellus Pippins (5-10, 176), who had a wide-open field and six points in front him after the interception.

Johnson-Mack continued to look like a starter, catching a short pass from senior quarterback Luke Falk (6-4, 225) and immediately bursting toward the end zone, beating the entire secondary and notching the first touchdown for the offense.

Redshirt freshman Renard Bell (5-8, 155), however, showed his lack of experience, dropping an easy pass in a little bit of traffic when he tried to turn the corner too early. Bell had his share of good plays, too, including a nice catch against tight coverage from sophomore safety Jalen Thompson (6-0, 190), and then later using his incredible speed to outrun the entire defense and score a touchdown after a short pass from Falk.

Bell also was part of what was perhaps the most unusual play of the afternoon, when special teams coach Eric Mele had him as the return man in punting exercises. Bell caught a powerful kick from redshirt freshman Tommy Park (5-10, 182) and used a combination of his speed and sharp angles to beat the entire punting squad for what was sure to be a touchdown, only to be tackled by the one man he had left to beat — a very proud and enthusiastic Park.

Sophomore wideout Dezmon Patmon (6-4, 211) showed off the athleticism that’s made him such an intriguing prospect for the Cougars when he used his size to jump up and catch a ball in the middle of the field against double coverage.

Not to be outdone, senior slot Robert Lewis (5-9, 170) made a similarly athletic jump and catch 15 yards from scrimmage on the very next play. Lewis also had a beautiful over-the-shoulder grab on a perfectly thrown Hilinski pass after he beat coverage from redshirt freshman D’Jimon Jones (5-11,191).

Jones would get his revenge, though, when he caused Lewis to drop a pass when it appeared the senior was focused more on avoiding an oncoming hit than on completing the catch. Jones also made smart and immediate tackles after catches — including getting to Johnson-Mack in time to turn a probable touchdown into only a short gain.

The sophomore safety also defended the run well all day, often tying up Morrow or junior Keith Harrington (5-9, 194) before they could make big gains.

Elsewhere in the secondary, sophomore Marcus Strong (5-9, 175) had his biggest play when he used his strength to pry the ball loose from Patmon’s hands.

Senior safety Robert Taylor (5-10, 183) remained a strong presence in the defensive backfield, showing great coverage against Lewis — and at one point breaking up a pass with such a forceful hit that Lewis was a little slow to get up. After getting up, the inside receiver walked on his own and didn’t seem too bothered by it.

Junior Dale Hunter (5-10, 195) excelled at safety as well, breaking up what could have been bigger gains from the Cougs’ offense. On his most memorable play, Hunter hit running back James Williams (5-11, 192) so hard along the sideline that he knocked the ball out of the sophomore’s hands to ignite an uproar from the onlooking defensive players.

Still, it was the second consecutive good practice for Williams after a poor outing in the scrimmage Saturday. Williams started the team portion of practice by catching a pass from Hilinski along the left sideline for quick gain, and later had a 20-yard touchdown run.

Morrow also had a good day — previous fumble notwithstanding. His biggest play came when he caught pass from Falk in the middle of the field and twisted and turned his way for a 50-yard touchdown play. He also beat Jones on a screen pass when Jones couldn’t recover in time to reach the senior and make a tackle.

Linebacker Nate DeRider (6-1, 226) and defensive back Sean Harper (184, 6-2) did a better job preventing Morrow from making gains after the catch, as the Cougar upperclassmen were quick to identify his route and converge to make strong tackles.

Defensive line coach Jeff Phelps seemed happy with his guys all afternoon — especially when his pass-rushers got to Hilinski early enough to force a hurried throw, which senior RUSH Dylan Hanser (6-4, 231) got a hand on to force an incompletion.

Seniors Garret McBroom (6-3, 280) and Daniel Ekuale (6-3, 297) both looked good in one-on-one drills against the offensive line, using the open space the drill provides defensive linemen to get past senior left guard Cody O’Connell (6-9, 370).

As usual, of course, Hercules Mata’afa (6-2, 255) was the star of the drill, at one point making Andre Dillard (6-5, 310) look absolutely helpless against the junior defensive lineman’s speed.

Despite the strong showing from the defensive line, senior right tackle Cole Madison (6-5, 315) and fifth-year senior right guard B.J. Salmonson (6-4, 300) provided solid pass protection, at one point shutting down junior RUSH Logan Tago (6-3, 245). Tago did stand out in earlier one-on-one drills, however.

Among the linebackers, senior Frankie Luvu (6-3, 240) impressed coaches in nine-on-nine drills, making multiple plays on the ball and at one point causing a quarterback fumble. Senior Peyton Pelluer (6-0, 228) again was among the stars of the crew, actively running all over the field in drills and drawing praise from the defensive staff.

Sophomore center Noah Osur-Myers (6-4, 307) also did a good job blocking against sophomore nose tackle Hunter Mattox (6-3, 286). In other good news for offensive line coach Clay McGuire’s group, neither Osur-Myers nor projected starter Frederick Mauigoa (6-3, 305) seemed to have any issues with making snaps  — a huge improvement from the previous few weeks.

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