LEWISTON, Idaho — Anthony Gordon will have a lot to digest in his first game as Washington State’s starting quarterback on Saturday against New Mexico State.
But the senior can take comfort that he has an experienced and solid offensive line in front of him, a unit that takes great pride in keeping the quarterback upright.
The Cougars allowed just 13 sacks last season, down from 44 the year before. Some of that can be attributed to Gardner Minshew being more mobile (and perhaps a bit more decisive) than his predecessor, Luke Falk. But much of it had to do with the offensive line, which entered last season with question marks after losing All-America tackle Cody O’Connell and guard Cole Madison, now with the Green Bay Packers.
But as it turns out, there was no reason to worry.
The leader of last year’s line, left tackle Andre Dillard, is gone, taken in the first round of the NFL draft this spring by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Still, the offensive line could be the best unit on the team, with four of five starters returning, and the other is a sixth-year senior. And they are big, with each starter at least 300 pounds.
Senior center Frederick Mauigoa (6-foot-3, 310 pounds) has started every game the past two seasons and is on the watch list for the Rimginton Award given to the country’s best center. Junior Liam Ryan (6-5, 300), who started at left guard last season has not only replaced Andre Dillard at left tackle but also as the team’s vocal leader. Senior Robert Valencia (6-6, 300) takes over at left guard for Harris after he was granted a sixth season of eligibility. His only start came in last year’s Alamo Bowl.
Sophomore right tackle Abe Lucas (6-7, 324), an Archbishop Murphy graduate, has gained 68 pounds since coming to Pullman and has become one of the best linemen in the conference, earning Freshman All-America and second-team All-Pac-12 honors last year. Josh Watson (6-4, 300) returns as the starter at right guard.
Ryan is the vocal leader of the group, but it’s Mauigoa’s duty to position the line on each play.
“I’ve got to make sure everyone knows the play, then look at the defense, find where the ‘Mike’ linebacker is and look at the fronts, and call it out so each O-lineman can know their assignment and make sure the running back knows who to block,” Mauigoa said. “Then the quarterback will clap, and I will look around, and if I see someone creeping from one side — if I called a protection to the left, and I see someone creeping from the right — I have to change it over. And if there are four people to one side, and I think they are going to blitz, I’ve got to send four over.”
Coach Mike Leach said having someone as experienced at that position as Mauigoa, a 4.0 high school student in Samoa. Mauigoa said he enjoys the mental part of the game that takes place before each snap.
“I like thinking, and I like being the guy that’s responsible for the whole blocking scheme,” he said.
Mauigoa takes pride in playing every game and every offensive snap.
“I got hurt last year — Andre (Dillard) threw someone into my knee — but when I went out it was a field goal and then halftime, and I came back right after halftime,” he said. “I did not want to miss a snap.”
Ryan started at left guard last season, but was Dillard’s backup at left tackle, making him the obvious candidate to take over at that spot. It was a seamless transition in camp.
“It really wasn’t a big difference, staying on the same side,” Ryan said of switching from left guard to tackle. “At guard, you’re on bigger guys, not as many steps as you have to take. At tackle, you have so much more space and you have quick (defenders). Once you get your hands on the smaller guys, it’s a little bit easier. Being with guys that you know and you are comfortable with makes you more confident, and on the O-line you have to be confident with what you are doing.”
Ryan said he “talks all the time” with Dillard, which has helped in the transition, and Ryan said the line is working well as a group. And the main goal never changes.
“Don’t let anyone ever touch our quarterback. As long as he has time back there, we have four receivers up front trying to get open,” Ryan said. “When we do our job, it makes everyone else’s job easier. I think we’re going to be something to reckon with.”