How that translates to wins and losses this fall remains to be seen but for me and the 9,000 other people on hand at Albi Stadium, it was clear the 2017 Cougars are fast and strong — and also physical. And I was focused mostly on the play of the offense.
Here are my takeaways of the four position groups on the offensive side of the ball.
1. TONE SET ON THE OFFENSIVE LINE
Three returning starters gives this unit a veteran feel. That was apparent Saturday as most of the pressure came from coverage sacks, where a receiver was unable to break free. Seeing the White Walkers (tackle Andre Dillard and All-American guard Cody O’Connell wore all-white and played on both teams) put in work all day assured the blind side was nailed down for the Crimson and the Gray.
One play that really caught my eye was a third-down shovel pass. O’Connell quick set, as if it was a pass play, to get the linebacker to drop. He then climbed up to the second level, in space with the outside linebacker. Typically, you’d expect a lineman in this situation to throw his body in front of, and trip up, the defender. But on this play The Continent decided to deliver a message instead.
Without hesitation, O’Connell put his shoulder right through the chest of the defender. When I say “through the defender” I mean his hips extended and he planted the LB into the ground. O’Connell is quickly becoming the leader of his unit and pancake plays like this one set the tone of expectation for the whole group.
2. RECEIVERS HAVE WHAT IT TAKES
This unit has by far the most potential. In other words, they can be great, but are not there yet. On Saturday I’d see a good route followed by a lazy one, a good catch followed by the defender ripping the ball out.
I was impressed with Isaiah Johnson-Mack and Dezmon Patmon, who both showed off their big frames and big paws while pulling passes away from defenders. Guys who are 6-3 and 6-4 and win one-on-one match ups will be weapons in the red zone.
Tavares Martin Jr., though, is the wideout on my short list for a breakout this season — to the degree someone who had 64 receptions last season can be a considered a breakout candidate. If he is able to diagnose and dissect coverages like Gabe Marks, the sky will be the limit for TMJ.
The battles for Y and H continue, with veterans Kyle Sweet and Robert Lewis controlling their destinies. Lewis, by the way, is featured in one of my favorite photos from Saturday, which you can find at the top of this story. Look at the block he's leveling there so Anthony White Jr. can run through. Lewis is only 5-9 and 170, making the block even more impressive. As for the talent at Y and H, consistency will be key to helping the Cougars avoid the late-season pitfalls of last season. One youngster showed Saturday exactly what the growing pains can look like; Renard Bell turned a nice catch into a big gain when he made the defender miss, but then followed that play with a lazy block in the slot that led to a tackle for loss.
3. GOOD HANDS (AND FEET) AT QUARTERBACK
Luke Falk is obviously the leader of this team via his talent, work ethic and demeanor. The way he breaks down film — not merely analyzing schemes but dissecting specific routes against specific coverages in specific situations — speaks volumes about how special he is.
His understudy, Tyler Hilinski, threw for 295 yards on Saturday but I was most taken by his elusiveness as a runner. QBs are off limits for hits in these scrimmages so Hilinksi’s six-yard TD run in the third quarter requires an asterisk but it clearly illustrated the extra dimension he brings to the offense. I had to chuckle at corner Marcellus Pippins, who protested Hilinksi’s score because of the no-hit rule, but then jumped quickly into a dance routine on his way to the sideline when music started playing on the loudspeakers.
4. OPPORTUNITY KNOCKING AT RUNNING BACK
Football is a game where you can never give a peer a chance to show how replaceable you are. Sometimes that is uncontrollable, and injuries held out proven seniors Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks on Saturday. Once that window of opportunity is opened, though, you never know what might happen. James Williams and Keith Harrington didn’t waste a moment, each posting 143 all-purpose yards.
Williams continued to show how special he can be. A play that was successful last year and will work until game-planned against is getting Williams one-on-one with the LB versus cover 2. The receivers pull the safeties wide and Williams is merely too much for any LB to cover in that much space. One result Saturday was a 40-yard toss and catch. The tell-tale sign of when Williams is ready to carry the full load will be when he graduates from mental mistakes.
Harrington gets the award for Man of the Spring. Given an inch, this rising fourth-year junior has taken a mile! He showed toughness Saturday by running through tackles and his elusiveness was on display with a jump cut that left two defenders frozen. These skills add up to what offensive linemen love to see in a runner: yards after initial contact. If Harrington keeps up with the solid blocking in pass protection, it will be tough to keep him off the field in September.
A FINAL THOUGHT: Spring ball is the time to form a unique identity particular to this team. It’s a time to see who will step into new roles and who will elevate within old roles. Only time will tell how we remember these 2017 Cougars, but one thing is certain after watching them compete in Spokane on Saturday: they have considerable talent.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jed Collins spent seven seasons in the NFL with eight teams, working his way from undrafted free agent and practice squad player to starting fullback for the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions. He retired after the 2015 season. From 2004-07 he was an all-everything standout at Washington State, where he played linebacker, fullback and tight end. “Jedzilla,” as Cougar fans affectionately dubbed him, earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors as a senior in 2007 after catching 52 Alex Brink passes for 512 yards. Today he is an advisor with the Seattle-based (and Cougar-owned) wealth management firm Brighton Jones and serves as a regular columnist for Cougfan.com during football season.