Can Luke Falk deliver a championship in his final season at Washington State?
The Cougars enter a new season with plenty of promise after enjoying back-to-back winning seasons and bowl appearances for the first time since 2004. Many pieces are in place for Mke Leach's Washington State team to contend for a Pac-12 North title in 2017.
With Falk back at the controls, the Cougar offense should be as dangerous and hard to scheme against as ever. Washington State does have a few key holes to fill at wide receiver and on the line. More questions need to be answered on defense after the Cougars faltered on that side of the ball over the final three games of 2016.
4 Storylines to Watch During Washington State’s Spring Practice
1. Who will emerge at wide receiver for the Cougars?
Replacing a receiver tandem as productive and effective as Gabe Marks and River Cracraft wouldn’t be a simple task for any offense. Marks and Cracraft combined for 1,595 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns a season ago.
The door is open for Tavares Martin to emerge as the lead receiver in 2017. Martin made 13 starts at X receiver in 2016 and finished with 728 yards and seven touchdowns. He was second on the team in total receiving yardage behind Marks.
Kyle Sweet and Isaiah Johnson-Mack are likely to fill bigger roles in the absence of Marks and Cracraft. Johnson-Mack totaled 246 yards on 35 catches as a true freshman last season. Sweet, a junior, had 357 yards on 27 receptions during his sophomore campaign.
Newcomer Easop Winston, a junior college transfer, also will be in the receiver mix from day one. Winston totaled 2,157 yards and 24 touchdowns on 133 catches in two seasons at City College of San Francisco.
2. Who will be Luke Falk’s successor in 2018?
Falk opting to return for his senior season over entering the NFL Draft gave Washington State a major boost going into 2017. Barring an unexpected injury, Falk will take the reins of one of the nation’s most potent offenses once again.
Who will be waiting in the wings for Falk once the final chapter on his Washington State career is written? Tyler Hilinski figures to have the edge after spending last season as Falk’s backup. The redshirt sophomore completed 24-of-30 passes for 245 yards with two touchdowns and one interception while appearing in four games. Hilinski’s best game came against Arizona, where he threw for 163 yards and two touchdowns on 15-for-17 passing.
Anthony Gordon could make a push to unseat Hilinski in the spring. Gordon redshirted last season, but threw for 3,864 yards and 37 TDs at City College of San Francisco in 2015. Freshman Connor Neville will also likely get a shot down the road, but he will not join the Cougars until the summer.
3. Who will step up at center and right guard?
Washington State returns the majority of its offensive line intact. Cody O’Connell is a beast at left guard and will anchor the left side of the line with tackle Andre Dillard. Cole Madison also returns at right tackle. The only holes to fill are the ones left behind by Riley Sorenson and Eduardo Middleton at center and right guard.
Fred Mauigoa seems like an obvious choice to fill the void at center. Mauigoa backed up Sorenson last season at the position and showed great potential as a true freshman. Noah Osur-Myers also is in the mix at center after playing in four games as a redshirt freshman last season.
At right guard, it will likely come down to fifth-year senior B.J. Salmonson and junior college transfer Robert Valencia claiming the starting job. Valencia ranked as one of the top offensive line recruits in the Pac-12 after signing out of the City College of San Francisco. If he lives up to the hype, the Cougars should be set at both guard positions.
4. Can the defense make bigger strides?
Until the final two regular season games against Colorado and Washington, the Cougars did more than enough to hold opposing offenses in check. Washington State finished the season ranked in the middle of the pack in the Pac-12 both in scoring defense (26.4 ppg) and total defense (405.9 ypg).
The defensive line should be an area of strength with Hercules Mata’afa up front. Mata’afa is back after helping the Cougars rank in the top 30 nationally in rushing defense a year ago. He emerged as an elite defensive end, totaling five sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss. The junior has punishing speed for a lineman and should only blossom further this season.
Payton Pueller can be counted on to get things done at linebacker. Pueller ranked fourth in the Pac-12 with 93 tackles last season. He totaled 7.5 tackles for a loss and recovered a pair of fumbles while forcing another. The redshirt senior has led the Cougars in tackles each of the last two seasons.
Replacing nickel back Shalom Luani won’t be easy. Luani led the team in interceptions and ranked third in tackles last season. Experienced players like Darrien Molton and Jalen Thompson are back in the secondary, though, so the pass defense will have enough momentum to take a few more steps forward.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Washington State in the Pac-12
A three-game losing streak at season’s end took away a little shine from an otherwise stellar 2016 campaign for Washington State. Still, the Cougars should be able to remain a Pac-12 North contender in 2017. As long as QB Luke Falk is healthy and running the offense, few defense are going to be able to figure out how to cage the Cougars. Claiming a Pac-12 North crown may be a long shot, given the toughness of the 2017 schedule, but Washington State can definitely play a spoiler role throughout the fall.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.