Top 3 strengths, concerns after 15 WSU special ball practices

PULLMAN — After watching all 15 Washington State spring ball practices, here are my top three reasons to feel confident headed into the Cougs’ 2017 campaign, and the top three reasons for concern.

What to be confident about:
1. The Defensive Line.
With senior Garrett McBroom (6-3, 280) bringing his experience and strength to the nose position, the absence of Ngalu Tapa this spring wasn’t nearly as noticeable.  With senior Daniel Ekuale (6-3, 297) also earning time with the first team, I expect to see some matchup-specific combinations on the Cougar front. 

D-line coach Jeff Phelps has speed at the two other spots too, primarily slotting junior Hercules Mata'afa (6-2, 255) at defensive tackle and sophomore Nnamdi Oguayo (6-3, 229) at end. Drawing too many conclusions from spring scrimmages is usually a bad way to fly, there are too many controlled aspects that are dissimilar to the actual games, but there were a lot of positives on the d-line this spring.

Phelps has stressed that each end player will know the tackle spot, and each tackle player will know the nose spot — allowing for defensive coordinator to mix and match players depending on particular matchups. And it was a good spring for juniors Kingston Fernandez (6-2, 262) and Nick Begg (6-5, 260), don’t count those guys out headed into fall ball.

2. Luke Falk’s new Air Raid weaponry.
It’s likely that WSU will miss the skill and savvy at times of River Cracraft and Gabe Marks, but with projected starters junior Tavares Martin, Jr. (6-1, 183), sophomore Isaiah Johnson-Mack (6-3, 218), junior Kyle Sweet (6-0, 192) and senior Robert Lewis (5-9, 170) all having solid springs, plus the emergence of potential stars like sophomore Dezmon Patmon (6-4, 211) and spring breakout junior Easop Winston (5-11, 183) the Air Raid has been rearmed for the coming season.

Additionally, the third and fourth players on running backs coach Jim Mastro’s depth chart, seniors Jamal Morrow (5-9, 200) and Gerard Wicks (6-0, 228), haven’t gotten any worse over the course of the spring. But the former top two have been passed (at least for now) by sophomore James Williams (5-11, 192) and junior Keith Harrington (5-8, 194), Mastro told CF.C after the final practice. The move is more telling about the depth in the backfield than it is about anything else. Harrington has said WSU has the best backfield in the nation, and all four running backs are eager to prove him right.

3. The Secondary.
Alex Grinch’s defensive backfield was the biggest defensive liability in 2016 and it had some questions heading into the spring  (and it still does). But senior Marcellus Pippins (5-10, 176) had perhaps his best spring since he first arrived in Pullman.

And there’s plenty of talent, including sophomore corner Darrien Molton (5-10, 175) and senior safety Robert Taylor (5-10, 183) who made quicker reads entering his second year in the program – not to mention a bevy of hard hits. Those two look to have their starting corner and safety spots on lockdown after the spring.

Junior Sean Harper (6-2, 184) looked comfortable this spring despite only having joined WSU in January. And after converting from receiver to DB, the wildcard here is second-year freshman Grant Porter (6-0, 184). The sample size is too small but he looked like he’s ready to help the Cougs on Saturdays this year at either corner or free safety. 

The big takeaway here: the Cougar secondary looks capable of making more game-changing plays than last year, and at any time. More on that in a bit.

What to be concerned about:

1. Depth on the Offensive line.
After changing from a traditional spiral snap from the stitches to a simpler “dead snap,” in which the center clutches the top cone of the football, sophomores Frederick Mauigoa (6-3, 305) and Noah Osur-Myers (6-4, 307) made far fewer miscues with the Cougar quarterbacks. Mauigoa is the leading candidate to start but the fact that the center position’s defining act this spring centered around some misplaced snaps can't be ignored.

Additionally, the Cougs looked good at times up front but they clearly need to gel more.  Another concern: while the players behind established veterans like seniors Cody O’Connell (6-9, 370) and Cole Madison (6-5, 315), and junior Andre Dillard (6-5, 310) had their moments, they didn’t look like world beaters. Keeping the starters healthy will be a priority, as will seeing the youth up their game in fall ball.

2. Special teams unknowns.
One concern going forward will be the accuracy of senior placekicker Erik Powell (6-1, 201), who missed enough boots that Mike Leach expressed his displeasure toward the end of spring.

The spring session didn’t answer the question as to how often we’ll see a rugby-style punt (or fake) from Sweet, and whether the Cougars have a breakout star return man — my money would be on Williams but as the top guy in the backfield, Leach may not want to overtax him with too many responsibilities. Renard Bell is another to watch. There are reasons to believe the WSU special teams will continue their upward glide path under Eric Mele (see related story below). It's just that spring ball simply didn’t feature many live punts or kickoffs so it’s impossible to draw many conclusions at this stage.

3. The Secondary.
Yes, the defensive backfield makes both categories.  Grinch’s squad at times looked like it’s just as capable of giving up big plays as it is of making them.

While the corners and safeties did a better job of containing the Air Raid’s biggest explosions during the latter half of spring, they could still be exploited on short-to-midrange passes Pac-12 offenses employ. From my chair, that's the biggest area WSU needs to address.

Bottom line: the secondary needs to play a little crisper as the depth chart solidifies into fall camp. If not, and if the spring is any indication, the defensive backfield could be feast or famine, rather than just feast.

RELATED: WSU special teams top 25 in 2017?

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