Whenever offensive linemen at Washington State assume their stance in the trenches these days, the spirit of Andre Dillard is still with them.
And so is his shirt.
At least that was the case during a drill last spring, when position coach Mason Miller tried to make a point by planting a folding chair nearby with Dillard’s old jersey draped over it.
He hasn’t tried that ploy here in August, so the Cougars are presumably making progress.
Even without Dillard, the offensive line figures to be a team strength as the Cougs continue preseason football workouts in increasingly toasty conditions at Sacajawea Junior High in Lewiston. The mercury approached triple digits on Day 3 of camp Sunday, another workout featuring lively and resourceful play on both offense and defense.
Dillard is now plying his trade as a first-round draft choice with the Philadelphia Eagles, but four other O-line starters are back for the Cougars, and Miller obviously believes there should be no dropoff in performance.
Hence the symbolic chair in the spring.
“Some people weren’t blocking very well,” Miller said Saturday, the first time he’s been made available to the media in a spell. “I said, ‘You know, I could put a chair out here and get as much use out of you.’ I just wanted everybody to feel comfortable with the chair, so I put Dillard’s jersey on it, so they would recognize, ‘The chair is actually a better blocker than you right now.’”
Miller’s high expectations are partly a reflection of the 2018 season, when the line protected deftly, then-WSU quarterback Gardner Minshew repeatedly swam away from pressure and the Cougars allowed only 13 sacks while attempting 478 passes.
“One of the things we’re striving for right now is to be consistently good, not occasionally great,” Miller said. “The fact that we go against a defensive line (in practice) that in my opinion’s got their hair on fire every single day is nothing but great for us.”
Miller welcomes back starters Liam Ryan, Fred Mauigoa, Josh Watson and Abe Lucas, and he’s plugging in a fellow with plenty of experience already, Robert Valencia. Ryan is converting from left guard to fill Dillard’s role at left tackle, and Miller likes how the transition is going.
“He repped it all year last year as the backup,” the coach pointed out. “The other thing that people don’t really understand is our splits are so big. Half the time he (Ryan during his guard days) is basically blocking like a tackle anyway. So it’s not that big a deal to me.”
PAPA WILLIAMS — Former WSU running back James Williams visited camp Sunday, still waiting for another NFL opportunity this summer and meanwhile making other transitions in his life. His fiancee, former Lewiston High and Lewis-Clark State tennis player Rye Hewett, gave birth to a boy, Rush James, on July 20.
Williams forfeited his senior season to turn pro, went unchosen in the NFL draft, signed a free-agent contract with the Chiefs, then got cut in June.
His departure from WSU will no doubt mean a bigger role for Max Borghi, who rushed for 366 yards and caught 53 passes last year as Williams’ freshman backup.
Asked on Sunday about Williams’ decision to leave, Borghi said, “I was happy for him. He’s getting an opportunity to live out his dreams. I was fully supportive of him pursuing his dreams and his career goals.”
At some point, did Borghi start thinking about how the move affects his own goals?
“I don’t want to think about that immediately,” he said. “Every year, I’ve got to compete for my spot.”
QB ROTATION — This time, it was Gage Gubrud’s turn to stand back and watch.
Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon, the two veteran quarterbacks who have been waiting in the wings for three years, alternated at the helm of the offense during major team drills Sunday as coach Mike Leach continued his evaluation of two QBs each day. Over the course of several workouts, he’s trying to split the reps evenly among the two WSU vets and Gubrud, the graduate transfer from Eastern Washington.
“I thought they looked pretty good,” Leach said of Tinsley and Gordon. “They were explosive. They hit a little dry spell but they were generally fairly explosive, I thought.”