For head coach Mike Leach, however, the practice restricted to helmets and shoulder pads showed the Cougars still have work to do.
“We gotta work incredibly hard... Where we’re at now is no where near where we need to be,” said Leach, the only coach who was made available to media members Tuesday. All the other assistants left Martin Stadium immediately after practice, heading to the airport as recruiting season never stops.
As for the goals between now and the start of the fall season, Leach had a clear message about what the next round of recruiting might mean for his players.
“Some of those guys that currently think they’re starters at various positions on both of sides of the ball, I think they need to understand that they’re in a great deal of jeopardy and need to aggressively try to secure those positions or they'll be taken away,” Leach said. “Because, to be perfectly honest, between now and the end of (fall) camp, we’re going to aggressively try to improve this team as much as we can, and take as many people’s positions as possible — if they don’t hold on them.”
Tuesday, the Cougars’ defense started well in the team session, with pressure causing Falk (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) to badly overthrow sophomore receiver Isaiah Johnson-Mack (6-3, 217) on the first play.
Falk recovered on the next play, scrambling away from pressure and tossing a last-second lateral to spring standout James Williams (5-11, 192), and the sophomore running back ran up the right sideline for a first down. Williams was brilliant all day, consistently slicing up the Cougars’ defense with his speed and pinpoint running angles.
Senior slot receiver Robert Lewis (5-9, 170) also had a good afternoon, making a great first-down catch from Falk in traffic.
On the defensive side of the ball, senior Isaac Dotson (6-1, 224) and sophomore Marcus Strong (5-9, 175) combined for strong double coverage against Johnson-Mack, preventing a Falk touchdown pass. In fact, Strong’s coverage bothered Johnson-Mack all day — though at one point Johnson-Mack was able to use his superior strength to drag Strong a few extra yards before succumbing to the tackle.
In addition to Strong, junior defensive back Sean Harper (6-2, 184) made some big plays, at one point breaking up a pass in the end zone intended for standout junior receiver Easop Winston (5-11, 183).
Despite wearing a yellow “no hit” jersey, junior cornerback Darrien Molton (5-10, 181) played well, stuffing freshman receiver Renard Bell (5-8, 155) on a reverse play and then breaking up a pass to sophomore wideout Dezmon Patmon (6-4, 211).
In less encouraging news for the WSU defensive unit, senior RUSH Dylan Hanser (6-4, 231) appeared to suffer an injury to his right leg or foot away from the play. He was helped off the field by two graduate assistants and remained out for the rest of practice. Hopefully for the Cougars, the injury isn’t very serious, but, as usual, the team isn’t discussing it.
Improving on an already successful spring, wideout C.J. Dimry (6-5, 213) caught a perfectly thrown 40-yard touchdown pass from Falk after beating recently converted defensive back Grant Porter (6-0, 184), a freshman. Junior linebacker China Onyeukwu (6-2, 225) got the better of Dimry on the next play, stopping the senior for loss after a short pass in the backfield — but Dimry had an otherwise outstanding afternoon.
After almost making an incredible jumping touchdown catch that Porter was just barely able to break up, Dimry would later beat Porter — who’s admitted he can be caught watching the quarterback more than he should — for a deep touchdown from sophomore quarterback Tyler Hilinski (6-3, 217).
Junior running back Keith Harrington (5-8, 194) got in some snaps with both Falk and Hilinski and continued to look like a viable option after an impressive Crimson and Gray game. Junior receiver Tavares Martin, Jr. (6-1, 181) looked like a very tough cover each time out.
At one point, Strong nearly picked off a pass from Hilinski to Martin, but Martin was simply too powerful to let the defensive back hold onto the ball, and the pass fell incomplete in the end zone.
And in a good sign for the Cougars’ offense, senior running back Gerard Wicks (6-0, 228) looked good in limited action in his return to the field.
When Hilinski came in, he immediately targeted Lewis, who beat senior safety Robert Taylor (5-10, 183) for what would have been a 70-yard touchdown had the coaches not whistled the play dead. Lewis had a second touchdown catch later, when he beat Taylor in the red zone.
On the offensive line, senior Cody O’Connell (6-9, 370) continued to give Falk great protection, while projected starting right guard B.J. Salmonson (6-4, 300) blocked well against both senior nose tackle Garret McBroom (6-3, 280) and one of defensive line coach Jeff Phelps’ most pleasant surprises this spring, junior Nick Begg (6-5, 260). Begg also made a great play keeping Harrington out of the end zone in goal-line coverage.
In addition to Begg and McBroom, junior lineman Hercules Mata’afa was great at getting to both quarterbacks (especially Hilinski) and forcing quick and dangerous throws.
Sophomore defensive back Hayden Schmidt (5-8, 170), coming off a Crimson and Gray game in which he had two picks, looked great in special-teams drills. Twice he almost blocked punts from senior Erik Powell (6-1, 201).
True freshman defensive back Zaire Webb (5-9, 184) also shined in punting exercises, landing a massive hit on Bell as soon as the return man caught the ball. Bell had a good day on offense, using his speed to make a few deep catches (including a touchdown).
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