WSU SCRIMMAGE: Falk & Hilinski put on a show; our full report from Pullman on second scrimmage of the spring

PULLMAN — Is there a quarterback controversy in Pullman? Almost certainly not, but according to WSU head coach Mike Leach, senior and presumptive starter Luke Falk (6-4, 225) and sophomore Tyler Hilinski (6-3, 217) are “neck and neck right now.”

When pressed to clarify whether starting Hilinski over Falk is even a remote possibility, Leach didn’t back down.

“I’ll consider starting anybody over anybody,” he said. “You gotta win and earn your job every day. They’re both playing real well.”

In the scrimmage, Falk finished 18-for-29, totaling 210 yards, while Hilinski was a slightly more accurate 14-for-21. Both quarterbacks had four touchdowns and an interception apiece.

Take Leach’s words with a grain of salt, of course — he values competition among all his players and doesn’t want to say officially that any starting job is confirmed, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, barring injury or something truly bizarre, Luke Falk will be the starting quarterback for WSU until he graduates.

Of course it helps that, no matter who lines up under center, the Cougar quarterback will have an army of talented receivers to target -- and even after WSU lost Gabe Marks and River Cracraft to graduation. Two that stood out Saturday were junior Easop Winston (5-11, 183) and sophomore Dezmon Patmon (6-4, 211).

Winston led all Cougar receivers with 10 catches for 126 yards and 3 touchdowns, while Patmon had four catches for 80 yards and a pair of scores.

“He’s got the best hands I’ve ever seen,”  said Falk of Winston, high praise indeed.  Patmon, meanwhile, is “a freak of nature right now, just playing out of his mind,” according to Falk “It’s been really fun targeting him with that big body he’s got.”

“He’s got really soft hands, he’s an elusive guy, plays the ball in the air well, he’s gotten better and better as time’s gone on,” Leach said of Winston, who is under consideration for either a slot or outside position in the Air Raid offense.

Indeed, the depth at receiver allowed defensive coordinator Alex Grinch to poach redshirt freshman Grant Porter (6-0, 184) and add him to the secondary. Today’s scrimmage was Porter’s second practice under Grinch.  He may be new to the position and still learning, but he looked good on Saturday -- I counted four pass break ups by Porter.

“We could get him more reps on defense than he’s been getting on offense and he’s got the body type and he’s got the speed (to play in the secondary),” said Grinch, noting that the defense as a whole made “a million mistakes . . . just like every other scrimmage I’ve been a part of for the past 15 years.”

Grinch is high on Porter not only for his physical skills, but because the former receiver has been so receptive to switching sides.

“He’s not at the back of the line playing this thing timid,” said Grinch. “When you go to an individual and make mention of ‘maybe we’re thinking about it’ and he immediately jumps at it, then it might be a good move.”

Porter shares Grinch’s excitement. “They love me on the defensive side of the ball,” he said. “I was nervous at first. I couldn’t sleep the first night (before the move to D).”

The latest addition to the Cougar secondary began the day by breaking up a pass from Hilinski to sophomore Isaiah Johnson-Mack (6-3, 218). Porter was a star all afternoon long, finishing the day with three tackles and the aforementioned team-leading four passes defensed.

Hilinski was quick to look elsewhere on his next throw, connecting with junior slot receiver Kyle Sweet (6-0, 192) for a 23-yard pickup. Hilinski stuck with his slot receivers on the drive, completing a short pass to senior Robert Lewis (5-9, 170), only to see Lewis leveled by a devastating hit from senior safety Robert Taylor (5-10, 183).

Taylor also had a big hit on Lewis at Thursday afternoon’s practice, so it’s encouraging that Lewis isn’t seriously shaken up, and also that Taylor isn’t taking any plays off.

Sophomore running back James Williams (5-11, 192) markedly improved from the first scrimmage. From my chair, he once again looked like the top Cougar running back, though it wasn’t easy to tell from his first carry, when he managed to gain five yards only to be stuffed backwards by energetic senior linebacker Nate DeRider (6-1, 226).

But Williams ripped off some explosive plays and displayed none of the carelessness with the ball from last Saturday’s scrimmage. Characterizing the back and forth day, Porter had one of his better tackles stopping Williams from gaining anything significant after catching a screen pass.

Hilinski continued to show why Cougar fans should not be worried about the QB depth on the 2017 Cougs, marching the offense down the field and into the red zone with quick passes to junior Tavares Martin Jr. (6-1, 183), Williams, and Sweet.

Hilinski also scrambled well all day, using his light feet to often (though not always) escape oncoming pass rushers.

Grinch’s defense, however, would not let the sophomore quarterback’s unit into the end zone on their first try. The goal line stand was particularly encouraging for a defensive unit that’s shown brilliance at times this spring, often coming up with huge takeaways and sacks — only to be followed by allowing breakout plays just as game-changing from the offense.

The defense finished the day with six sacks.

When Falk got his turn under center, he began with a quick throw to redshirt freshman Renard Bell (5-8, 155) on first down. Had it been a game situation, however, the punting unit would’ve come on, as, in a rare blitzing action from the Cougs this spring, Marcus Strong rushed in from the defensive backfield and forced Falk to throw the ball away on second down. On third down, great coverage from senior cornerback Marcellus Pippins (5-10, 176) caused Patmon to drop a pass.

Overall, however, the explosive Patmon had an excellent afternoon, using his size to catch passes in traffic and his speed to force defenders to miss tackles.

His best plays where when he used his size advantage over Pippins to grab a 21-yard touchdown pass from Falk, and later on when made a 42-yard over-the-shoulder catch for a touchdown from Hilinski.

Winston began to really shine when sophomore Anthony Gordon (6-3, 189) got in a few snaps as quarterback. After junior running back Keith Harrington (5-8, 194) sliced up the third-string defense for a 15-yard gain, Gordon found Winston for 25 yards and then a 10-yard touchdown on consecutive plays.

Winston made another great catch later in the day, hauling in the ball despite Porter being whistled for interfering with the junior receiver.

The defense performed a little better on the next series, with walk on linebacker Dillon Sherman (6-1, 213) landing a powerful hit on Harrington to force an incompletion. Harrington showed his unselfishness on the very next play, providing excellent blocking for Luke Falk, who had returned at quarterback for the drive.

After Porter broke up another pass, sophomore RUSH Derek Moore got to Falk and forced an incompletion, rounding out a nice series for the Cougar D. (Moore would later do the same thing to Hilinski.)

Senior linebacker Peyton Pelluer (6-0, 228) also had a great day for Grinch’s squad, sacking Hilinski once and nearly causing an interception when he was able to pop a very catchable ball out of the hands of senior running back Jamal Morrow (5-9, 200).

The offense did a little better on a later Falk series, with quick gains from Patmon and Morrow. The drive ended on a 34-yard James Williams touchdown after he caught a short pass from Falk and burst past the defense behind great blocking from his teammates.

Second-year freshman walk on QB Trey Tinsley (6-3, 201) had a tough time with the Cougar players further down the depth harassing the offensive unit and prevent big plays.

On one of Tinsley's early snaps, second-year freshman 'backer Justus Rogers (6-2, 225) got a big sack. Rogers also applied smothering pressure on Hilinski when lined up against him.

Eric Mele’s field goal unit also improved immensely over last Saturday’s disappointing 3-for-7 field goal performance. On Saturday, the kicking crew of senior Erik Powell (6-1, 201), redshirt freshman Jack Crane (6-2, 190), and sophomore Brett Schafer (5-9, 174) combined to go 6-for-7, with the only miss coming on Crane’s second attempt.

The Cougar offense as a whole gained 563 yards of total offense per WSU SID.

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