By Jacob Thorpe and John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On Wednesday it was widely reported that Washington State defensive end Kalafitoni Pole would not play in the New Mexico Bowl and had been sent home.
On Thursday, WSU sideline reporter Jessamyn McIntyre reported on Twitter that Pole was returning to New Mexico on her flight, and posted a picture of the junior.
Prior to McIntyre’s tweet, WSU coach Mike Leach said that Pole, who was not at practice, will play in the game.
“He’s here, he just had to take care of an academic issue. But he’s here,” Leach said.
Leach also said that Pole will be the team’s starting defensive end on Saturday. Pole started at defensive end for the Cougars for most of the season, but did not start either of the team’s final two games. Destiny Vaeao took all the snaps at defensive end in Thursday’s practice.
WSU athletic director Bill Moos told The Spokesman-Review that if a player is found to be academically ineligible, they must be sent home from the bowl site as soon as is feasible. To be eligible, players must complete a minimum of six credit hours.
Questioning a redshirt
WSU is continuing to build depth the old-fashioned way.
Most freshmen redshirt their first year on campus, which allows them to practice and develop while preserving a year of eligibility. Of the 31 freshmen listed on WSU’s roster, only five have played.
The five are wide receiver River Cracraft, who earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors, safety Isaac Dotson, offensive lineman Riley Sorenson, walk-on receiver John Thompson and cornerback Daquawn Brown.
Leach did question himself on pulling Sorenson’s redshirt.
“Difficult to say, I wonder that myself some,” Leach said. “But we were thin and he was ahead of the others so he played. He’s done some good things out there, too.”
Offensive line coach Clay McGuire has said that players at that position take as long or longer than any to develop, due to the physical nature of the position. Both he and Leach acknowledged that in hindsight, it may have been beneficial to redshirt Sorenson, who has not played much.
The Alabama way
Jim McElwain took a little bit of something from all the head coaches he has worked under during a 27-year odyssey as a college football assistant — Dick Zornes, Cliff Hysell, John L. Smith, Pat Hill.
But there’s no denying that being an acolyte of Nick Saban greased the path to his current gig as head coach of the Colorado State Rams.
The former Eastern Washington quarterback and assistant spent four years as Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama, and in between fittings for two national championship rings, McElwain confessed to pinching himself every now and then.
“Growing up in the Big Sky, just to have the chance to see how the other world lives is pretty incredible,” said McElwain, who was raised in Missoula. “I’m sure someday I’ll be back in Missoula driving by Dornblaser Field (UM’s former football field) and it’ll hit me, ‘You know what, we came a long way.’”
And learned a lot in the journey — particularly during that stop at ‘Bama.
“Coach Saban is unbelievable in the organizational model,” McElwain said, “and has been very helpful in my transition here. Just understanding that everything touches the desk of the head coach, everyone has to be speaking the same language and, more than anything, never accepting mediocrity.”
Saban has a reputation as a demanding boss, but McElwain offered that “he expected quality work, but he let people do their jobs. “He’s no micro-manager.”
In luring McElwain from his job at Fresno State, Saban included a travel proviso in his contract that made it easier for him to return to Missoula to see his parents when necessary.
And the notion of Saban’s program being the epitome of corporate football turned out to be misplaced, too, McElwain said, particularly in regards to recruiting.
“He made it clear it’s about personal relationships and the personal touch,” he said. “Campus visits can turn into what he calls the ‘herd mentality.’ You shuffle all these kids in a group, here or there, in a bus or a van, but he has a time line for every kid there. Kids come off visits there and there’s a bond.
“And he’s in on every guy. He understands the process of digging into kids’ lives, not leaving any stone unturned. You need to know who’s the decision-maker in the family — it might be an uncle in Atlanta, who knows? And what’s for dessert? Maybe the kid is nuts for chocolate chip mint ice cream. Those little personal touches, Coach is real big on that.”
Of course, the aura of Alabama and all those national championships has more than a little to do with a recruit’s decision.
“It really is the mecca of college football,” McElwain said. “You see all those names and you feel it. And I’m not so sure Bear Bryant isn’t still walking the hallways there.”