PULLMAN — On Washington State’s revamped offensive line, three players appear to have locked in starting roles.
One of them knows for sure where he will be stationed. One is settling into a new position, and another is looking for where it fits best.
“We want to keep mixing and matching and finding the right combination,” Cougs first-year coach Jake Dickert said last week.
Fourth-year sophomore Konner Gomness, starting eight games at center last season, garnered consistent praise from Cougar coaches and teammates during spring camp for his burgeoning leadership qualities and consistent play at the heart of the trenches. Barring major setbacks, Gomness won’t move to the center of the top rope.
Of WSU’s other two tested returners up front, there was movement.
Jarrett Kingston and Ma’ake Fifita, who both started on guard last season, spent the first three weeks of Spring Ball getting used to new positions.
Kingston, a fifth-year junior and the Cougars’ top left guard over the past two years, switched to left tackle in the offseason. The 6-foot-5, 300-pounder was sidelined in camp recently with an unspecified injury, but when healthy, Kingston provides a blindside anchor in WSU’s new offense.
“Jarrett really gives us that (pattern) left tackle, that athleticism,” Dickert said after practice Thursday morning at Rogers Field. “We’ll sort of see how all the pieces form, as far as Ma’ake is the best. He learns and grows a lot outside. His progress through eight workouts has been really, really good. He can do it. It gives us that “flex”. I think he’s a bit more comfortable indoors, but ultimately he’ll have to be (flexible) and he’s smart enough to play in multiple positions.
Fifita, who shared snaps at right guard through the first half of 2021 before capturing starting duties for the past five games, has lined up primarily at right tackle with WSU’s top unit this spring. He saw action at left tackle last season.
Fifita started the 2021 campaign second on the Cougs’ depth chart at right guard behind Cade Beresford, who was traded to Boise State at the end of the season. Fifita’s potential impressed former manager Nick Rolovich early on. The Everett product adopted an important rotational role in Week 2 and played good minutes in every game the rest of the year.
At 6-foot-5 and 302 pounds, the fourth-year sophomore carries his weight well and exhibits the ideal qualities of a tackle – a mix of agility and power.
Although Fifita and Kingston appear to be favorites to start at tackle in 2022, Dickert is keeping his options open.
“We’re going to have to have multiple guys,” he said last week. “Ma’ake is learning how to tackle and what that means, playing in more space. … You’ll see that a bit with these guys circling around, even Kingston playing a little guard. What’s our best five? We still have to work to find this combination.
No WSU position group has taken a bigger hit to its depth chart after the 2021 season than the offensive line.
Abraham Lucas is heading to the pro ranks after starting 42 games at right tackle during a decorated Coug career. He didn’t allow a sack last year and is projected by ESPN to be selected in the second or third round of the NFL Draft, which begins April 28. Liam Ryan, a 42-game starter at left tackle, also wrapped up his long stay at Pullman, and senior center Brian Greene was traded to Michigan State after a derailed 2021 season.
The Cougars’ tackle prospects improved Thursday, when the WSU announced that former Northern Colorado star Grant Stephens had signed with the program. The 6-foot-4, 300-pound eldest started for the FCS Bears at right tackle for two seasons and was named to the All-Big Sky Second Team last year.
Until his arrival, the experience is rare behind – and next to – Kingston, Fifita and Gomness.
Redshirt freshman Christian Hilborn maintains first-string right guard at spring camp. He appeared in two games last season, filling in the right tackle in the 2021 Finals for Lucas, who withdrew from the Sun Bowl. Hilborn’s first start was to be forgotten. He was benched after a tough first quarter.
Sophomore Rodrick Tialavea shoulders most first-team spring reps at left guard. He was a member of the special team last season.
Brock Dieu made his collegiate debut in the Cougs’ Sun Bowl loss to Central Michigan on Dec. 31 in El Paso, Texas. He did well in relief of Fifita at right guard – Fifita spelled Hilborn at tackle. God is saving Gomness spring camp at the center.
“We focus a lot on the center. Konner and Brock really control the wards (identifying the defenses) in the running game,” Dickert said. “These two guys have done a great job of really standing out with leadership, energy, effort, and I think you hear their voices. They command the offensive line as we need them, and it will be a progression as we continue.
Jack Wilson is a reserve to watch at the tackle position. The 6-11 junior, a former Oregon State and Idaho basketball player, earned a few thanks from Dickert.
“It’s the first time he’s really had the opportunity to learn and grow at the O line position,” Dickert said.
First-year offensive coordinator Eric Morris, who is leading the installation of an Air Raid system, offered his thoughts Tuesday on the Cougs’ new O line.
“I was surprised by our pass protection. It’s a bit better than I expected with all the youngsters we have,” he said. “Losing four guys is always tough and we’re moving some people around, putting Kingston on the tackle. He has been a caretaker all his life. They did a really good job in the pro pass, but we still need to work on some workings of the gap scheme. They just haven’t done that much.
The WSU big men got the ear of line coach O Clay McGuire on Thursday after a particularly one-sided team session in which the Cougs’ veteran defensive front clogged lanes and stuffed several plays .
“There’s a physical piece that I know Coach McGuire would like to continue seeing,” Dickert said. “You heard it today. He rolls through it. We have to be physical up front to be able to get some people off the ball.
WSU Spring Camp Day 8 Notes
Several notables dismissed
WSU has practiced without a handful of offensive all-stars, including Kingston, slot Lincoln Victor, running back Nakia Watson and outside receiver De’Zhaun Stribling.
Minor injuries have opened the door for reserves and young players to shine. Dickert singled out freshman running back Djouvensky Schlenbaker, outside receivers Anderson Grover and CJ Moore, and offensive tackles Wilson and Fa’alili Fa’amoe – a redshirt freshman who recently converted from tackle defensive.
“At 6:15 this morning I was running around screaming about how exciting this was going to be for some of our guys,” Dickert said. “I know they’re not farmers, but if you cut off a chicken’s head, that chicken still runs. We cannot stop. … It has to be a next-man mentality. This is the standard, the consistency of mindset we seek.
Save slots on the rise
Reserve inside receivers Orion Peters and Drake Owen have produced some electric highlights in camp and both seem to be making the case for reps this season.
“Orion Peters really stands out as a guy right now who’s pushing for really, really heavy game time,” Morris said Tuesday. “I like his mental makeup. I like his tenacity and his running streak, and his speed. Another guy who’s doing well is Drake Owen. He’s coming out and had a great camp. We’ve big shoes to replace with the two we lost (Travell Harris and Calvin Jackson Jr.).”
Peters, a redshirt freshman speedster from Los Angeles, dazzled in space last weekend in WSU’s first scrimmage. Owen, a junior and sophomore Cougar who previously played at Division II Central Washington, wore a red shirt last season after putting together a strong fall camp.
“There are a lot of opportunities there,” Owen said, noting the airstrike could feature up to eight pass-catchers in its rotation. “You have to be ready when your number is called.”