PULLMAN — The honeymoon might not be over yet, but the bear-hunting certainly is.
New coach Mike Leach — famed for his unique offseason ventures — was all business Thursday as his Washington State football players began handling theirs.
The first day of WSU’s training camp in preparation for the 2012 season felt much like any other — full of optimism, full of newcomers still figuring things out and full of vows from returning players that they’ve never worked harder than they did this past summer.
Though there was also the hulking, $80 million renovation on the south side of Martin Stadium nearing completion in the background, symbolic of WSU’s desired progression toward Pac-12 relevance.
Things have changed here. But the hubris accompanying the first day of football practices has not.
“Every friend that I have that goes to a Division-1 school, I don’t think they could have made it a day in our workouts,” said junior linebacker Eric Oertel of WSU’s summer workouts with strength coach Jason Loscalzo. “I think we’re definitely a lot better. We’re bigger, faster, stronger.”
“I thought we moved around real good,” Leach said. “I thought we were in much better shape.”
The Cougars appear to be closer to full health, too. For instance, they welcomed projected starting linebackers Chester Su’a and Darryl Monroe, along with safety Tyree Toomer, back to practice. All three had been limited or missed time during the spring, though Leach does not discuss injuries publicly.
There were some players on the roster who were not present at practice, such as receiver Henry Eaddy, defensive tackle Justin Clayton and cornerback Spencer Waseem, all three of whom were limited during the spring. No official reason was given for their absence.
Still, there were no exercise bikes or conditioning drills set up in the southwest corner of Rogers Field, as there were for the duration of spring practices.
“We’re trying to keep it that way,” Oertel said. “I think at the end of spring we had 15, 16 bikes out here, so we’re trying to stay away from that. … We’re trying to get some grown men playing on Saturdays. I don’t want to be a part of the team that is going to have 16 bikes for the entire season.”
Nolan Washington, a redshirt junior cornerback who was limited during the spring, twice intercepted quarterback Jeff Tuel during the 11-on-11 portion of practice, beginning his return from injury on a positive note.
Tuel received most of the reps with the starting unit at quarterback, with redshirt sophomore Connor Halliday taking the rest. Halliday did not practice during team session in the spring while recovering from a lacerated liver suffered against Utah in November.
Repetition was a focus.
“Today we just kind of worked on a certain play, and we wanted to make it hard on ourselves so we just ran it over and over and over again,” Tuel said. “… It forces you to hit your check-downs and find other guys to open up and work on things.”
“As far as our knowledge of offense and defense, I thought it was pretty high right now, and so what that tells me is we had a pretty productive summer,” Leach said. “And it’s a good starting point, but it’s a total starting point.”
Leach said that throughout fall camp, newcomers will receive extra work after practice in order to earn enough reps to feel comfortable with playing.
Among those who caught Leach’s eye Thursday were linebacker Justin Sagote, receivers Gabriel Marks and Brett Bartolone and safety Feddie Davey. Junior college transfer Niu Sale saw time with the No. 2 offensive line during team session.
But players insist more has changed here than just the personnel.
“Our expectations are above and beyond,” Oertel said. “Our coaches always tell us, ‘we’re going to be a four-win team until we win that fifth game.’ We have that fifth game on our mind every day. We’re trying to get that fifth win, and when that happens, we’re going to keep going for more and more and more.”