Cougars scrap for starting spots

Four position battles to keep an eye on

  • By Jacob Thorpe McClatchy News Service
  • Wednesday, August 10, 2016 1:30am
  • Sports
The Associated Press Washington State’s Gerard Wicks (23) is one of three Cougars running backs competing for playing time.

The Associated Press Washington State’s Gerard Wicks (23) is one of three Cougars running backs competing for playing time.

LEWISTON, Idaho — Even before Luke Falk played in his first college game, the Washington State quarterback prepared every day as if he was the starter.

That mindset and work ethic led to Falk actually becoming the starting quarterback, although his spot is allegedly, like all spots, up for grabs.

Of course, Falk being coach Mike Leach’s first choice at quarterback when the Cougars open their season is about as sure a thing as exists in sports.

Washington State does have some uncertainty at other spots, however. The coaches will eventually have to make a choice between similarly abled players so that the starters can get more practice reps, giving the Cougars the best chance for success. Here are four positions where the coaches will face a difficult choice when the time comes.

1. Running back: Whether or not a lead back emerges, or if the Cougars will spend another year rotating rushers depending on who has the hot hand, Washington State will carry three running backs.

The issue is there are four players the coaches feel confident can have success.

That means either Gerard Wicks, Keith Harrington, Jamal Morrow or James Williams is going to get left out in the cold, either turning into primarily a special teams player or maybe a wide receiver.

Williams is likely going to be one of Washington State’s return men, so he’s already got a special teams role, and Harrington came to college as a wide receiver.

All three will get their first crack at running back, however. Barring any injuries, Washington State should have a stable of able backs. But a good one is going to have to find a new role.

2. X-receiver: This receiver, who usually lines up on the left sideline, is invariably one of the most productive players on the Washington State offense.

Most years, the X-receiver gets the third-most touches of any position, behind Z-receiver and running back, and the second-most yards behind the running back. When an X-receiver has a particularly dominant season, such as Vince Mayle did in 2014, he can even be Washington State’s most productive skill player.

The X-receiver is invariably tall, and Washington State’s current crop of tall wide receivers gives outside receivers coach Dave Nichol plenty of options.

Tavares Martin is the mostly likely choice.

At 6-foot-1, Martin does not have the height of some of his teammates, but the sophomore is maybe the fastest player on the team, and had a very good spring. A couple of freshmen, 6-3 Isaiah Johnson and 6-4 Dezmon Patton, have looked good so far and will get plenty of opportunities to show they belong.

The x-factor at X-receiver is 6-6 giraffe C.J. Dimry, a deceptive athlete whose absurd catch radius leaves defensive backs with little options since the ball is in his range while it’s well outside their own.

3. Strong safety: Freshman Jalen Thompson enrolled early and laid his claim to the starting strong safety spot, and has been running with the ones during camp.

A rangy athlete, Thompson collects interceptions at a high rate in practice and can deliver the occasional wallop in run support. But watch out for junior college transfer Robert Taylor, who intercepted a pass during his first practice with the Cougars last Saturday.

Taylor is older and has more post-high school experience, which may give him an advantage while Thompson adjusts to college life. Also keep an eye on Charleston White, a lanky cornerback with great recovery speed who saw some time at safety during spring practices. White has been absent during the first two practices during preseason camp in Lewiston, but is expected to show up shortly.

4. Cornerback: Darrien Molton and Marcellus Pippins proved to be a productive duo at cornerback last season, and both are back for another round.

While Molton, a freshman All-American last season, appears certain to start at one cornerback spot, Pippins will need a stellar camp to regain his position as a starter.

It’s not that Pippins has played poorly, but Treshon Broughton has come on strong and is currently leading the race to start opposite Molton. Broughton was a junior college transfer last season and he joined the team late, missing preseason camp and playing only sparingly during the season.

But he’s an athletic cover corner who isn’t afraid to play physically. Either way, the Cougars should have good depth at the cornerback position. Don’t forget about White, either.

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