By Christian Caple The Spokesman-Review
LEWISTON — The ferocity of Washington State’s competition at outside receiver is best evidenced each night on the team’s catch chart.
Not necessarily because so many passes have been caught through the first five days of camp, though there have been. But because each of WSU’s receivers wants to scan the numbers every day to see who’s winning.
“Gabe Marks has won a couple days,” junior Kristoff Williams said. “He has a lead for most days. I think I’ve won before, but I think Gabe’s leading.”
As for who’s leading in the quest for playing time? Check back in three weeks. Five players are taking considerable repetitions at the two outside receiver spots during practice, though head coach Mike Leach’s offense calls for just four — eight overall, counting the inside spots — to play on gameday.
“If we can just continue to get better each day and translate what we’re doing in practice into a game situation, game-time decisions are going to be very challenging,” outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons said. “It’s developing into a real good problem to have.”
The problem stems from Marks (Z receiver) and Williams (X receiver), along with Dominique Williams (X), Isiah Myers (Z) and Vince Mayle (X), all showing consistency and making the most of the passes thrown their way during 1-on-1, 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 sessions.
Marks started most of last season and catches the ball nearly as often as he demands it. Myers has been steady enough to inspire quarterback Connor Halliday to label his efforts so far as “huge.”
Kristoff Williams pounds defenders with his 216-pound frame, though his finest catch Tuesday was a finesse play, snagging the ball in the corner of the end zone in a 1-on-1 drill while getting his feet down in bounds.
Mayle is still learning the offense after transferring from junior college, but a touchdown catch of 80-plus yards during Tuesday’s scrimmage period suggests he, too, may be catching on.
“Our receiving corps is playing unbelievably right now,” Halliday said.
Through the early days of camp, the receivers are the deepest position group on WSU’s roster.
It’s the consistency that might be most impressive.
“We’re not doing as many up-downs as last year,” Kristoff Williams said. “We stopped practice a couple times a day last year to do up-downs. That’s a big indicator.”
Whether that turns into the kind of production Simmons desires — 1,700 receiving yards from each outside spot — depends on factors that might not be simulated in a practice setting. Pass protection must improve, and the “performance anxiety” so often referenced by Leach last season must subside.
For now, though, Leach won’t go begging for options on the offensive perimeter. And that’s partially because of a better understanding by the receivers of the Air Raid’s nuances. Miscommunication and a steep learning curve accounted for many stalled drives last season.
“We’ve got a lot more open space after we catch the ball nowadays,” said Marks, who Simmons said was down to nearly 150 pounds by the end of last season but now weighs almost 180. “Sitting in the holes and stuff, there’s a lot more room to run because we’ve got the spacing right.”
Added Kristoff Williams: “You don’t have to think as much, so you can kind of be creative with your routes and not so stiff.”
While it’s reasonable to believe that all five of WSU’s contenders at outside receiver might perform well enough in preseason practices to earn playing time, the reality is that Leach is pretty set on playing just four of them in a game, barring injury.
“You need an extra outside guy and an extra inside guy, so they’re in the mix and they’ll rep some,” Leach said. “In the course of a game you probably play the eight, but you keep those other two ready.”