By Christian Caple The Spokesman-Review
PULLMAN — Empirical evidence of an attitude shift among Washington State’s offensive lineman can be found each day during the Cougars’ inside run drill.
The drill is designed to force the offense to run the ball between the tackles against a defense that is expecting it. Head coach Mike Leach tells his players that if the back picks up 3 yards, the play is considered a success.
So, yeah, it says something that the WSU linemen have come to view a 3-yard gain almost with disdain.
“We’re popping big runs, and (the running back) will score a touchdown on an inside run …,” senior center Eilliot Bosch said. “So now when we only get 3 yards or 4 yards or 5 yards, it’s like, ‘OK guys, what did we do? How can we get better?’ We’re not surprised by those big runs anymore.”
They had reason to be surprised by them last year, because they almost never occurred. WSU finished dead last in the country last season in rushing yards, and dead last in sacks allowed with 57. Both of the team’s quarterbacks, Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday, missed game action due to injury.
That all is a fairly damning reflection of the Cougars’ performance up front, for which the offensive lineman have held themselves accountable since the season ended.
“It was on us,” said left tackle Gunnar Eklund, a sophomore from Lake Stevens. “We didn’t handle adversity as well as we should have.”
Now? They swear the improvement is obvious.
“We’re a lot tougher and a lot more competitive than we were,” offensive-line coach Clay McGuire said. “I guess that would be the one thing. I’ve been really pleased.”
“I want people to know that we’ve got a lot more heart than met the eye last year,” Bosch said.
The Cougars are still working with many of the same linemen who saw action last season, albeit with a few changes.
Bosch will start at center for the second consecutive season, three-year starter John Fullington appears to have settled in at right guard, and Eklund returns at left tackle after starting nine games there last year.
The new additions to the current No. 1 group are walk-on sophomore left guard Joe Dahl and senior right tackle Rico Forbes, both of whom have held their respective positions since the beginning of spring.
Forbes was primed to start at tackle last season before a knee injury ended his season in August. Dahl redshirted last year after transferring from Montana, but impressed coaches with his performance on the scout team all season.
The biggest, tangible difference this year is size. Fullington, Forbes and Eklund are each listed at 300 pounds or more, with Dahl at 290 and Bosch at 280.
In terms of size and experience, McGuire said, “we were basically playing a bunch of freshmen out there.”
McGuire said the 57 sacks the Cougars allowed last season were “extremely, extremely too high for anybody” and that he would like to see that total cut at least in half.
“When we had one sack last year it would spiral down,” Eklund said. “We’d have one sack, then two sacks, or a series of sacks and it would be third and long and a tough down to complete. You’re going to have bad plays. Something’s going to happen, but when it does happen, we’re trying to move on to the next play.”
In the mix
Of the second-team linemen, only senior guard Matt Goetz has extensive in-game experience. Junior-college transfer Devonte McClain has taken many reps at left tackle with the No. 2 group, and fifth-year senior Zach Brevick is pretty firmly entrenched as the backup center.
Redshirt freshman Eduardo Middleton has played all camp as the backup right guard. Jacob Seydel, another junior-college transfer, spent the spring and all of camp with the No. 2 offense at right tackle before suffering a right foot/ankle injury during Thursday’s practice.
Reason for optimism
As McGuire said, everyone who played last season is bigger and appears stronger. The offense should come more naturally, too. And there are enough available bodies this season to sustain an injury or two.
Cause for concern
Beyond the apparent starting five, there is a precipitous drop in experience. The Cougars like their freshmen and second-year linemen, but if they’re forced to play, they might experience the same kind of growing pains that slowed the line last season.