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A look at who will be leading Cougars in 2018: Part 1

Addition of graduate transfer quarterback increases competition

Then-redshirt+senior+running+back+Jamal+Morrow+sheds+a+tackle+by+Stanford+cornerback+Quenton+Meeks+on+Nov.+4+at+Martin+Stadium.+WSU+will+rely+heavily+on+redshirt+junior+James+Williams+to+fill+the+void+left+by+Murrow%E2%80%99s+departure.
Then-redshirt senior running back Jamal Morrow sheds a tackle by Stanford cornerback Quenton Meeks on Nov. 4 at Martin Stadium. WSU will rely heavily on redshirt junior James Williams to fill the void left by Murrow’s departure.

Then-redshirt senior running back Jamal Morrow sheds a tackle by Stanford cornerback Quenton Meeks on Nov. 4 at Martin Stadium. WSU will rely heavily on redshirt junior James Williams to fill the void left by Murrow’s departure.

RYAN PUGH | DAILY EVERGREEN FILE

RYAN PUGH | DAILY EVERGREEN FILE

Then-redshirt senior running back Jamal Morrow sheds a tackle by Stanford cornerback Quenton Meeks on Nov. 4 at Martin Stadium. WSU will rely heavily on redshirt junior James Williams to fill the void left by Murrow’s departure.

JACKSON GARDNER, Evergreen columnist

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Spring football is in full swing at WSU and the fresh faces far outnumber the upperclassmen with playing experience.

Last week the Cougars strapped on their helmets for the first organized practices of 2018. Since they last took the field, the roster has seen dramatic overturn with the departure of all but one member of the highly-regarded 2013 recruiting class.

It is fair to look down the Cougars’ roster and conclude that there is a transition from the veteran-driven 2017 team to the youthful and inexperienced squad in 2018.

Head Coach Mike Leach has been timid to identify anyone who has caught his eye, and rightfully so as his team has only completed two spring practices. One can only imagine how he and his coaching staff are starting to formulate opinions on who the starters should be.

The battles for position this spring and fall camp will be fierce. Here is how the Cougars’ offense looks at an early glance:

 

Quarterbacks

While the competition to be Leach’s signal-caller is the most compelling, the verdict won’t be out until East Carolina University graduate transfer Gardner Minshew arrives after he graduates from ECU in May.

Tyler Hilinski was expected to be the starter for the 2018 season before he was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in January.

After this devastating loss, Leach’s quarterbacks were the youngest and least-experienced group in the nation prior to Minshew committing to WSU.

Among the quarterbacks already enrolled at WSU are redshirt juniors Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon, as well as the highly-touted true freshman Cammon Cooper.

Tinsley and Gordon are taking most of the reps with the first offense and are presumably the early frontrunners for the starting job. Their familiarity with the Air Raid offense and established relationships with the receiving core give them an edge on Cooper.

In the throwing sessions, Tinsley and Gordon look more composed and decisive than their younger teammate. However, it only takes one session to see that Cooper’s intangibles are far and away the most advanced of the group.

Tinsley impressed Leach in the team’s first 11-on-11 period of the spring, who talked about his skillset after the practice.

“He has studied real hard, so I think he is ahead of the other guys as far as knowing stuff,” Leach said. “At quarterback, there’s a lot of time you’ve got to be on your own in the film room … I think he has spent more time in the film [room] than any of the guys we have here.”

Cooper is only 17 years old, and if not for his early admission would most likely be preparing for his senior prom.

But instead he finds himself as the dark horse candidate for the starting job. He possesses the natural arm strength and build that warranted him the opportunity to participate in the Elite 11, a premier competition that attracts the best high school quarterbacks across the nation.

Cooper will have to pick up the Air Raid offense as well as nurture his relationships with the receiving core in order to give him a shot at winning the starting position come fall.

Verdict: Tinsley and Gordon are the early frontrunners, but until we see Minshew in Pullman and Cooper’s development, there is no clear starter.

 

Running Backs

It is no secret redshirt junior James Williams will be the featured running back for the Cougars this season, so the battle is for the touches Williams doesn’t get.

Leach has used up to three running backs in the past, so there will be plenty of opportunities for true freshman Max Borghi and redshirt senior Keith Harrington to leave their mark.

Fortunately for the three running back options, they all excel at catching the ball out of the backfield. One thing has been proven time and time again in Leach’s offense: If you can catch the football and make tacklers miss, there will be a spot for you on the field.

All three of the running backs will have the chance to make contributions in the passing game while Williams takes a majority of the carries in the ground game.

Depending on how he deals with the transition to collegiate football, Borghi certainly has an opportunity to get some carries this season. The young running back could stand to put on five to ten pounds on top of his 190-pound frame to better handle the abuse of running between the tackles in the Pac-12.

Five pounds is probably the more realistic goal for Borghi’s 2018 campaign, but speaking in the long-term, a 200-pound Borghi could be a difference-maker for the Cougars.

When Leach was asked about Harrington after the first practice last Thursday, he had positive words about the senior.

“He’s done a good job since he’s been here,” Leach said. “He is a real high-effort guy, great motor, has worked real hard in the offseason.”

How much Borghi and Harrington influence this season remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: 2018 will be the year of the hurdle for the Cougars’ running back committee.

Former WSU running back coach Jim Mastro, who enforced his policy against hurdling over defenders, is no longer in Pullman and Williams will likely lead the campaign to embarrass defenders.

Verdict: James Williams will be as much of a featured back as one can be in Leach’s offense, while Borghi and Harrington will have to prove themselves in order to get a fair share of touches.

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A look at who will be leading Cougars in 2018: Part 1