When we last left the Washington State Cougars … well, never mind that.
Mind this: it seems they’re growing up.
This isn’t just a matter of the two-deep having more seniors on the two-deep than 4 p.m. dinner service at Sizzler, though that experience is bound to be an asset this fall. This is more about the eye test.
Take it from Gabe Marks.
Since the last of his updates to the school record book, the Cougars’ catch conjurer has been busy being quizzed, measured and eyeballed by the NFL’s star seekers in advance of next weekend’s draft. So until he turned up at Saturday’s Crimson-and-Gray Game at Albi Stadium, he hadn’t had much time to keep up with his old team — in particular, his compadres in the receiving line.
“They looked good,” came his report. “They got way bigger, I think.”
About that time, sophomore-to-be Dezmon Patmon passed within view — the same Patmon who had the day’s most dazzling play, breaking free on a post route to haul in a laser from quarterback Luke Falk for a touchdown.
“Look at him,” Marks marveled. “He looks like an NFL player.”
At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, yeah.
But he also caught just two passes before his 2016 season was abridged, and so that Cambria bold exclamation mark of a body can still be read as a question mark.
Spring football doesn’t provide answers, only suggestions. Saturday’s details likely suggested to the hopeful Albi crowd — the school said 7,135 made it inside — that a bigger, better and (need it be said?) happier bowl experience awaits in 2017. But the answers won’t come until fall — and not in those first five weekends of home games that will test everyone’s tailgating stamina.
Among the questions: the receivers. You know somebody’s going to catch the ball. It’s not like Falk is going to stop throwing it. But it’s a matter of how often and how effectively.
Largely because of the graduation of Marks (89 catches) and River Cracraft (53, in just 10 games), the Cougars must replace a shade under half the balls that went to wide receivers last season. But it’s not just volume. Cracraft was a metronome, and the knee injury that ended his season coincided with WSU’s swoon. As for Marks, there was some flint to his game, and a threat that required extra defensive attention.
“And consistency — that’s what Gabe had,” said outside receivers coach Dave Nichol. “Everybody has faults, but you knew what you were going to get from him pretty much every Saturday. That’s what we’ve got to get with these guys.”
In some cases, it’s already there. Tavares Martin Jr. blossomed brilliantly as a sophomore on the outside, and there are better things to come. Inside receivers Robert Lewis and Kyle Sweet are reliable types, and Isaiah Johnson-Mack — another big body on the outside — showed signs of that again on Saturday with 101 yards in catches.
But the intrigue is always with the new. Like junior college transfer Easop Winston, whose hands are fabled already, thanks to some raves from Falk.
And then there’s Patmon, who worked a lot in Marks’ old Z receiver spot Saturday after being a backup to Martin last year.
“I feel like it’s a tremendous opportunity,” he said. “Got to fill the void somehow.”
There was a big void over the middle when Patmon ran past recently converted receiver Grant Porter for that 43-yard touchdown pass Saturday, one of seven catches.
Leach was impressed, but it started before Saturday.
“Even though he did some good things today, he’s had an even better spring,” said Leach — who before drills ever started issued Patmon a public challenge to improve his approach.
Patmon said Saturday injuries had shut down his season last year. Nichol had a different perspective.
“He’s motivated by the fact that we played him early and then we didn’t play him,” Nichol said. “Because he didn’t deserve to. He wants to get on the field. He knows there’s only one X and one Z. He’s played motivated.”
He’ll have company. Come fall, the slots will get more crowded with the arrival of freshmen Jamire Calvin and Travell Harris, and new inside receivers coach Derek Sage insisted that “depthwise, somebody’s going to have to come in and play right away.
“We’re just looking for playmakers. We don’t discriminate against playmakers.”
Or tough guys.
“Gabe was the go-to guy and a pretty tough competitor and guys learned from him,” said Nichol, “but it’s doing it day in and day out — going over the middle and catching the tough ball, blocking, being football players and being gritty. That’s something we lacked at times last year. We needed to grow up and get tougher this spring. Are we there yet? We’re not.”
But they’re getting there.
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