LEWISTON — It’s not a stretch to say Washington State’s new linebackers coach, Roc Bellantoni, is filling not one role but two.
His predecessor, Ken Wilson, now at Oregon, left a void in the Cougar brain trust. And so did linebacker Peyton Pelluer.
But Pelluer spent six seasons raising the football IQ of his teammates, so Bellantoni will be spared the challenge of working from scratch.
Experienced players like Jahad Woods, Justus Rogers and Dillon Sherman, the last two of whom are competing for Pelluer’s old spot at middle linebacker, are surely making the transition to Wazzu easier for Bellantoni, a personable 26-year coach who spent the previous two seasons at the University of Buffalo.
In a sense, they’re all filling the void left by Pelluer, a 47-game starter and the undisputed on-field defensive leader of recent Cougar seasons, especially last year’s 11-2 campaign.
“I’ve heard all about Peyton — he was a great player and I got to watch a lot of film of him,” Bellantoni said after the Cougs’ latest preseason practice Wednesday at Sacajawea Junior High in Lewiston. “And I heard he was a really strong personality, strong leader. And maybe now that there’s not one strong leader, it’s letting other guys step up and do their thing, and some of that other leadership is developing,”
The process starts with Woods, a dynamic but soft-spoken weakside backer who’s entering his junior season after getting honorable mention on the All-Pac-12 team last year.
“The rah-rah guys, they stand out, you hear them all the time,” Bellantoni said. “But you don’t know about the guy who this summer pulled three guys aside and said, ‘That’s not how we do things here.’ That’s Jahad.
“I’m really happy with him, but Justus and Sherman have really stepped up too. They’re a little more vocal than Jahad. I think we’ve got a good group of leaders, not only in my group but on the defense and the whole team.”
Bellantoni’s unit now also includes Dominick Silvels, who is being converted from rush specialist.
The new assistant has been struck by this Lewiston phenomenon — the Cougars’ annual six- or seven-day preseason field trip, in which they lodge at Lewis-Clark State dormitories and practice on a huge but otherwise modest junior-high field. Head coach Mike Leach introduced the ritual for his second season at the school, in 2013.
“One of the brilliant things coach Leach does is bring the team down here,” Bellantoni said, “because players are rooming with people they would never room with before, they’re hanging out with the team, they’re doing the belly-flop contests (referring to a visit to Orchards Pool on Monday), and the coaches are hanging out together. I think it’s a helluva deal. It’s been great, unlike anything I’ve ever been around.”
Cougar veterans Trey Tinsley and Anthony Gordon were the featured quarterbacks Wednesday as Leach continued a three-man shuffle that also includes graduate transfer Gage Gubrud. Both played well, though not consistently, and left outside receiver Tay Martin had a particularly good day.
Thick clouds and a slight breeze took the edge off the 100-degree heat that has reigned for several days, but the conditions were nonetheless starting to affect the Cougars’ crispness.
“I thought both sides of the ball were sloppy,” Leach said, making no exception for the quarterbacks. “We competed. We fought stuff. It’s just not very precise.”
The Cougs’ final practice in Lewiston begins at 2 p.m. today and will be shorter than usual, in anticipation of a scrimmage Friday night at Pullman.