Heading into the stretch run of preseason football practices, Washington State is seeing a bit more clarity at quarterback.
But maybe it’s come at the expense of the defense.
The more Anthony Gordon emerges as the Cougars’ best bet to slice up the early-season opposition, the more cuts and vulnerabilities the Wazzu D is showing.
“I’m a little frustrated because we’re experimenting here a little bit too late (in the preseason),” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said after the Cougs’ second and final preseason scrimmage Saturday.
His counterpart on offense, head coach Mike Leach, seems comparatively angst-free as the Cougars, ranked No. 23 in the Associated Press preseason poll released Monday, (see related story) move toward a season opener Aug. 31 at home against New Mexico State.
After an abbreviated practice Sunday, Leach even made a definitive statement on the quarterback race, something he rarely does unless the previous year’s starter is returning.
“If we were to play today, we’d play Gordon,” he said. “But we’ve got some time too.”
In other words, Gordon has gained some separation from Gage Gubrud, the graduate transfer from Eastern Washington who’s trying to duplicate the alarmingly fast acclimation to Leach’s Air Raid offense that Gardner Minshew pulled off last year. Unless the outlook shifts again, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Gordon will soon make his starting debut, three years after arriving in Pullman as a junior-college transfer.
“He’s continued to improve,” Leach said. “The biggest thing is consistency — he’s gotten consistent. He’s always been able to unload the ball quickly, and he’s gotten real steady with his reads. He’s done a really good job reading the field.”
Gordon’s emergence comes in the face of enduringly high expectations for Gubrud, who on Monday was named to the watch list for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award — which Minshew won last season.
Gordon began inching ahead of Gubrud and another serious candidate, Trey Tinsley, about a week and a half ago, then solidified his position with a productive, self-assured performance in Saturday’s scrimmage.
“All fall camp, I’ve been feeling pretty good,” Gordon said after that session. “I’ve been playing with a lot of confidence, just kind of rolled throughout today. Coach Leach got us into some good plays, and the offensive line was playing really good, got me some time to get the ball downfield. The receivers are really good with the ball in their hands.”
True enough. And with every big play the QBs and receivers produce, the more questions arise about WSU’s unseasoned secondary. The defense is relatively stout up front, experienced at linebacker and often aggressive at every position. The Cougs have induced repeated turnovers and played with snarl in the red zone. But sometimes it’s all too obvious that three 2018 starters are missing at the back end.
“We’re behind where we need to be,” Claeys said Saturday, “and we’ve got to be a helluva lot more consistent. Anytime you create turnovers, without a doubt that helps. I’m pleased with that part. I just don’t think we’re where we need to be. But the good thing is, we’ve got 10 days to try to get it figured out.”
Much of his rumination will be focused on the cornerbacks, who return starter Marcus Strong on one side but are seeing little clarity on the other. George Hicks III and junior-college transfer Derrick Langford have made bids for the role, but the recent mover and shaker has been sophomore walk-on Armani Marsh, who was promptly awarded a scholarship.
“In my opinion, a good coach does what his players can do best,” said Claeys, entering his second year as Cougar DC, “and right now I’m a little confused, because some of those guys — I’m not sure what they do best.”
NOW ON SCHOLLY — In addition to Marsh, junior running back Clay Markoff was also awarded a scholarship. The news was announced at a team meeting Sunday.
“And the room kind of erupted, because teamwise they’re both really well thought of guys,” Leach said.
HAANGANA OUT — Backup offensive lineman Christian Haangana, who has been missing from workouts throughout camp, is no longer a member of the team, the Spokesman-Review reported Monday. A warrant for Haangana’s arrest was recently issued after he failed to appear for two court hearings on a misdemeanor vandalism charge.
Haangana, a junior from Milpitas, Calif., played in all 13 games last season but rarely saw action on offense. His most high-profile moment came on a negative play on special teams, when he slipped to the turf as a USC defender across from him blocked a 38-yard field-goal attempt with 1:50 remaining. That preserved the Trojans’ 39-36 win.