Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew passes during a practice last week in Pullman. Minshew is one of three quarterbacks competing for the starting job. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew passes during a practice last week in Pullman. Minshew is one of three quarterbacks competing for the starting job. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Cougars enter season drawing strength from Hilinski’s memory

Wide receiver Robert Lewis says Hilinski ‘would want us to go out and play as hard as we can for him’

PULLMAN — Washington State receiver Robert Lewis is going into this season still mourning Tyler Hilinski but also drawing strength from his memory.

Hilinski was expected to lead the Cougars this year but the young quarterback killed himself in January. Thoughts of him have stayed with the team over the intervening months.

“We love Tyler,” Lewis said. “He’s always going to be with us.”

In the months before his death, Hilinski had been regarded as the presumptive starter replacing Luke Falk, the Cougars’ record-setting quarterback who graduated last year and is now with the Tennessee Titans.

So Washington State went into the fall with questions on the field as well as heavy hearts.

“He would want us to go out and play as hard as we can for him,” Lewis said.

Three players are now competing for the starter’s spot, led by graduate transfer Gardner Minshew, a part-time starter the past two seasons at East Carolina. Also in the mix are juniors Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon, neither of whom has thrown a pass in an FCS game.

Coach Mike Leach said Minshew “reminds me of a cross between Brett Favre and Jim McMahon.”

Leach plans to name a starter at least 10 days before the season opener Sept. 1 at Wyoming. At this point, Minshew is getting the most reps.

“He elevates the unit and they are excited to play for him,” Leach said.

Leach, who has a 38-38 record at Washington State, has led the Cougars to three straight winning seasons, a rarity for the program. The Cougars are projected to finish fifth this year in the Pac-12 North, ahead of only Oregon State. They went 9-4 last season, including winning all seven at home, but stumbled in their final two games, getting crushed at Washington and by Michigan State in the Holiday Bowl.

If the Cougars go to a fourth straight bowl game this season, it would be the first time in program history.

“If we attack every week and win every week, it will come,” Lewis said.

Other things to know as Washington State prepares to begin the 2018 season:

Defensive questions: Last season, Hercules Mata’afa led the Pac-12 in quarterback takedowns, tackles-for-loss and was a consensus All-America. But he left early for the NFL and it’s unclear who can match that production. Junior defensive end Nnamdi Oguayo should succeed Mata’afa as the team sacks leader. But Washington State likely will take a more balanced approach to the pass rush. “Right now we are a work in progress,” linebacker Peyton Pelluer said.

Lots of receivers: Leach’s Air Raid offense throws the ball nearly every down and Leach typically employs an eight-man receiver rotation. The Cougars are deeper than that. Renard Bell, Kyle Sweet, Dezmon Patmon, Tay Martin and Jamire Calvin are back after all exceeding 30 catches and 300 receiving yards last season.

Protect the passer: Last year, the Cougars’ front five was touted as one of the country’s best. This season the offensive line will be one of the least experienced in the Pac-12.

Ground raid: Highly touted freshman running back Max Borghi has looked good in fall practice, and is likely to see playing time this season, Leach said. The Cougars hope to improve on last year’s Pac-12 low of 884 rushing yards.

Hello coach: First-year defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys replaced highly regarded Alex Grinch, who left for Ohio State. The Cougars also lost assistant coaches Derek Sage, Roy Manning and Jim Mastro among others. New coaches include Steve Spurrier Jr., Kendrick Shaver, Darcel McBath and Matt Brock. Leach said he isn’t worried about disruptions because he continues to run the offense and Claeys “has succeeded at every level.”

The schedule: The Cougars open with a game at Wyoming on Sept. 1 and home games against San Jose State and Eastern Washington before heading to USC on Sept. 21. They also play Utah, Oregon, California, Arizona and Washington at home. They play at Oregon State, Stanford and Colorado.

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