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Luani, Marks fight for NFL roster spots

The two former Cougs' have hopes of making football a profession in the upcoming season

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Former WSU receiver Gabe Marks runs with the ball in a game against Eastern Washington last season

Former WSU receiver Gabe Marks runs with the ball in a game against Eastern Washington last season

DES MARKS | Daily Evergreen File

DES MARKS | Daily Evergreen File

Former WSU receiver Gabe Marks runs with the ball in a game against Eastern Washington last season

Dylan Greene, Evergreen reporter

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Making it on the roster of an NFL team is hard. Only 1.6 percent of college football players achieve their dream of playing in the NFL.

Two Cougar players from last year’s team have been battling all summer to be among the few that make it. Former WSU wide receiver Gabe Marks is one of the Cougs from a year ago looking to take the next step into the NFL.

The last time we saw Marks in a Cougars uniform he had to deal with the disappointment of losing to Minnesota in the Holiday Bowl. Marks couldn’t even look at the cameras during the press conference after the game.

Marks felt a similar feeling in late April when he wasn’t selected in this year’s NFL draft. But a phone call from the New York Jets afterwards turned that feeling of defeat into hope.

Marks was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Jets and would have a chance to be on the team’s roster for the season opener. Marks finished his WSU career as the Pac-12’s and the Cougar’s all-time career leader in receptions (316). He also holds WSU career records in touchdowns (37) and receiving yards (3, 453).

Marks production during his Cougar tenure would almost ensure a spot in the NFL, but many experts said he was a product of the system he played in and his impressive numbers were inflated by the Cougars pass happy Air Raid offense. Marks dealt with claims and perceptions like this throughout the pre-draft process.

“Guys are trying to call us ‘system receivers’ like that’s a thing, it’s not a thing,’’ Marks said in an interview with the Seattle Times at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. “You’ve still got to do it, it doesn’t matter the system that you are in.”

Marks silenced the critics with his play on the field during training camp. His performance at camp even caught the attention of retired Carolina Panthers wide receiver and current NFL Network analyst Steve Smith Sr.

“A guy I was watching kind of a little bit was Marks,” Smith said in an interview with the Jets team reporter on Aug. 4. “He finished well, he caught the ball well, he has some giddy-up in his step.”

The high praise is coming from a three-time All-Pro wide receiver that knows the ins and outs of being a successful wideout in the NFL. Marks stood out in training camp as one of 14 receivers in camp with the Jets. Unfortunately, his performance in camp and the preseason wasn’t enough the make the Jets 53-man roster.

Marks did not play in the Jets first preseason due to injury, but he did appear in the team’s other three games. Despite being cut on Saturday by the Jets, the team wants to sign Marks to their practice squad if he clears waivers. This means Marks may have another chance to prove himself and potentially make it on the Jets active roster at some point this season.

Shalom Luani, another Coug that played a major role in leading WSU to an 8-5 record last season, had a different path to the NFL. Unlike his former teammate, Luani was drafted. The Oakland Raiders selected the former WSU safety/linebacker in the seventh round of the NFL draft. Luani stood out as soon as he stepped on the Raiders practice field and had an impressive preseason.

Luani tied for second on the team in tackles (13) during the preseason, led the team with three passes defended and had an interception against the Seahawks in the Raiders final preseason game.

“I was excited for my first pick in the league,” Luani said following the preseason finale. “Players come and coaches come and say ‘good job’, it makes me feel like I belong here.”

The Raiders must think Luani belongs, as he was named to their 53-man roster on Saturday. Raiders Head Coach Jack Del Rio felt Luani earned a spot on the roster with his performance at safety and on special teams during the preseason.

“He’s very instinctive,” said Del Rio after the team’s final preseason game. “He’s really got a nose for the football. He’s developed special teams wise, some of the things we’re asking him to do. I think he’s been a real positive addition for us in the back end.”

Every time Luani steps on the field he’s focused on improving and having an impact.

“There’s not one game where I go in and think I’ve made my mark,” said Luani. “Every game I go in there and prove myself, that I’m the one. Just play ball. That’s all I gotta do, just play ball.”

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