By Jacob Thorpe The Spokesman-Review
PULLMAN — There has been almost no turnover among Washington State’s receivers since last season, but that doesn’t mean you’ll recognize the members of the Cougars’ deepest position group.
Vince Mayle no longer looks like a tight end after dropping 20 pounds and significantly increasing his speed. Isiah Myers and River Cracraft have taken the opposite track, adding weight.
“This offseason was really great, especially for the outside receivers,” Myers said. “We take great pride in working out and our offseason conditioning so far has been really great for us.”
“We get our personal work in as receivers off the field without any coaches around but our primary improvements were from (strength coach Jason) Loscalzo and the strength and conditioning staff,” he added.
Head coach Mike Leach will have no problem finding enough pass catchers to cycle through his pass-heavy Air Raid offense. In fact, the biggest issue might be figuring out what to do with the extras. The Cougars are once again poised to attempt more than 700 passes this season and still there doesn’t appear to be enough balls to go around in a receiving corps that could have its top eight players back from last season.
“They know that if they’re out there I’m going to expect everything from you. I’m going to expect great effort and I’m going to expect you to make your physical presence shown,” outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons said of the returnees. “I think it’s probably easier for them because they know what my expectations are as a player and I kind of know what they’re capable of doing.”
The group adds young players like freshman Calvin Green and redshirt freshman Robert Lewis. Green, in particular, seems likely to see ample playing time this season, impressing coaches with his speed and with how quickly he picked up the nuances of the position after playing running back in high school.
But getting into or staying in the group of eight players that Leach says is likely to play — two at each of the four receiver positions — will not be easy, even for the veterans.
In particular, the outside receivers — referred to as the X and Z receivers — have been impressive since the spring. The two X receivers — Mayle and Dom Williams — came on toward the end of last season while Myers and Kristoff Williams have both played very well in the fall.
Myers has made a number of acrobatic catches since fall camp began, and at one point quarterback Connor Halliday named his as the receiver he currently has the best rapport with.
Williams is arguably the most versatile receiver the Cougars have. He played quarterback in high school and makes an impact as a return man on special teams, and even occasionally receives the ball on sweep plays.
“That’s going to expand our offense. If you think about it last year we had a lot of explosive plays at X,” Simmons said. “With those guys raising their game and the competition in the room between the X and the Z, it’s made the offense more of a balanced thing, and hopefully that will make it more of a challenge on Saturday.”
The depth at the Z position will be especially important if Gabe Marks — last season’s receiving leader in catches and yards — doesn’t play this season. Marks missed spring practice with an undisclosed injury and has been limited in the fall after taking a big hit in a scrimmage that knocked off his helmet.
Leach acknowledged earlier this week that having Marks sit out this season to preserve a season of eligibility is on the table, but said that nothing has been decided.
If Marks did sit it would deprive the Cougars of one of their best players, but it would open up some catches for a stacked unit in which every player is fighting to contribute.
“I don’t see it as a competition,” Williams said. “I just see it as us pushing each other to get better because everybody is going to play, everybody is going to contribute. You feed off each other’s energy but we’re happy for each other no matter what.”