Leach: Cougar WRs have gotten tougher

PULLMAN — Life after Marquess Wilson doesn’t seem as if it will be an issue for Washington State’s receivers. Then again, they did get a head start.

Experience gained by underclassmen last season when Wilson left the team could pay dividends this year for WSU, which returns players who accounted for 70 percent of their receiving yards in 2012.

Their top pass-catcher, Brett Bartolone, is back as a sophomore. And though Wilson led the team in receiving yards, the five players who finished directly below him in that statistic are still on the roster — and some of them, such as Dominique Williams, benefited from Wilson’s absence toward the end of last season.

Another year in head coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense has improved communication, tempo and efficiency. And even though his team hasn’t played any games yet, Leach is sure the group has improved from performances that last season moved him to question their toughness.

“They’re tougher now than they were last year,” he said. “We’ve got to get tougher yet, but they’re tougher now.”

The starters

Receivers coach Dennis Simmons likes to say he has five starters at the two outside receiver spots.

“I don’t hold my breath with any of those guys when they’re in the football game,” Simmons said. “That’s the way I want it. Like I’ve said before, I want to have a great unit, not one great individual.”

So it’s anyone’s guess as to who might run onto the field with WSU’s starting offense on Aug. 31 in Auburn. There are a couple of near-certainties, though.

For one, sophomore Gabe Marks likely will wind up as the starter — or at least play significantly — at “Z” receiver. The Los Angeles native caught 49 passes for 560 yards as a true freshman last season. Only Wilson and Bartolone had more catches, and only Wilson had more yards.

Marks’ performance in camp this season has only reaffirmed the thought that he could be the Cougars’ most dependable outside receiver.

“He’s always been a competitive guy,” said Simmons, adding that Marks has put on some much-needed weight that has made him stronger. “Now he’s been able to hone that in and stay focused, and come out and work hard every day.”

Marks isn’t the only one. Isiah Myers, a junior, is back after catching 42 passes for 438 yards last season, and his camp has been filled with deep routes for touchdowns. Kristoff Williams, also a junior, seems primed for the most productive season of his career after the 6-foot-2, 216-pounder caught 22 passes in an injury-plagued 2012.

There’s also Dominique Williams, the sophomore who beat out Wilson for a starting job last season and wound up averaging 16.1 yards per catch on 34 grabs. Vince Mayle, a junior-college transfer, possesses a big frame at 6-foot-3 and about 234 pounds, and has been competing with the others since the first day of camp.

“Everybody wants to play,” Dominique Williams said. “They said top five (outside) receivers travel. We’re battling just doing what we’ve been doing — feeding off each other, learning from each others’ moves.”

The inside receiver positions are similarly competitive. Bartolone led the team in receptions last season as a freshman, and should figure prominently at the H-receiver spot. With him at that position are junior Rickey Galvin and true freshman walk-on John Thompson.

Bobby Ratliff and freshmen River Cracraft and Robert Lewis should be in the mix at the Y position. Ratliff caught 30 passes for 399 yards last season as a sophomore, Cracraft has been one of WSU’s top newcomers and Lewis might be the fastest player on the team.

“The goals for the inside, as far as I’m concerned, is run every route as hard as you can and just make plays when they’re presented to you,” Bartolone said. “Whatever your job is, just do your job.”

Keep an eye on

Cracraft and Mayle are each still trying to refine their skills within the offense, but both will see the field in their first season. At 6-foot, 198 pounds, Cracraft is solid for a player his age, and has taken plenty of reps with the first- and second-team offenses. Mayle’s size and strength make him a threat in the red zone, though Simmons said he’s versatile.

“Red zone, open field, short-yardage situations. He’s nice to have all over the field,” Simmons said. “He’s got some strengths and things he does that strengthen our unit as well.”

Reason for optimism

This is the deepest group on WSU’s team, and players such as Dominique Williams, Myers and Bartolone proved down the stretch last season that they’re capable of making big plays. The Cougars won’t lack for bodies at any of their four receiver positions, and there’s enough experience returning from 2012 that sizeable improvement is reasonable to expect.

Cause for concern

Wilson commanded so much attention and so many passes in each of the past three seasons, there isn’t anyone on the current roster who has experience in college as the go-to guy, so to speak. Simmons and Leach don’t emphasize that kind of thing, but it will be interesting to see whether anyone takes control of the group.

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