WSU Cougars

WSU notebook: Cougars working to fix special teams

The Seattle Times

Rutgers wide receiver Janarion Grant (1) celebrates in the end zone during an NCAA college football game against Washington State, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Piscataway, N.J.
Rutgers wide receiver Janarion Grant (1) celebrates in the end zone during an NCAA college football game against Washington State, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Piscataway, N.J. AP

If it hadn’t been for Rutgers return specialist Janarion Grant’s two special teams returns for touchdowns against Washington State, the Cougars’ win might not have been such a nail-biter.

Grant’s two scoring scampers through the entire Cougars’ special teams squad in the fourth quarter were the ugliest parts of what many would consider one of the more memorable wins in recent Washington State football history.

But while coach Mike Leach agreed Tuesday that WSU needs to make some improvements on special teams, he also pointed out that you have to give credit where it’s due -- Grant is a formidable special teams player.

“I think he’s a really good returner, no question,” Leach said. “I thought we played really good for three quarters on special teams.”

That’s true. Much like the Seahawks’ Tyler Lockett, Grant has the ability to make game-changing special teams plays, and he’ll make many more teams look silly before the year is up.

The Cougars, meanwhile, are working on the things they can fix. Grant’s talent aside, there were a couple of mistakes WSU made while covering both his returns.

On kickoffs, we had three guys lose leverage on their lanes,” Leach said. “On the punt, we were supposed to punt the thing out of bounds. It came off (punter Zach Charme’s) foot bad. We just gotta get better at that and finish the game.”

COOL HAND LUKE’s Matthew Zimmer wrote about the nicknames the Cougs are starting to give one another. Cracraft has become known as Mr. Reliable, for obvious reasons. Destiny Vaeao is now “The Seer.”

The genesis of that stems from the exchange he had with Luke Falk late in the fourth quarter as the defense was getting ready to go out onto the field. According to Falk, Vaeao came up to him and said, “I’m going to get you the ball back.” Of course on that defensive series, Vaeao recovers a fumble, keeps the ball, trots back to Falk and shoves it into the quarterback’s chest. “See, I told you I’d get you the ball. Now, go score.” Vaeao said -- this relayed by Falk to reporters on a conference call this week.”

For the record, if we’re going to start coming up with nicknames, I vote Falk is thus known as “Cool Hand Luke.” Unfortunately, I’m betting that the Cougs are all young enough that this reference would be lost on them. Doubly unfortunately, I’m just starting to realize that I’m getting old enough where I can make pop culture references that might be lost on the current generation. Oy vey.


Five true freshmen and four redshirt freshmen have played for the Cougars this season, while their opponent this week, Wyoming, played 18 true and redshirt freshmen in its season opener.

The Cougs and Cowboys aren’t the only ones calling upon their freshmen to contribute right away. This seems to be a trend around the country, in part because, as Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez pointed out on the Pac-12 conference call Tuesday morning, players who come out of high school today are better prepared for college action than ever before.

In Mike Leach’s tenure at WSU, the Cougars have had to rely heavily on young players. WSU had 17 freshmen in action in 2012, 10 in 2013 and 20 last season. The nine they’ve had on the field this season marks the fewest so far per year in the Leach era, and is perhaps a sign that the roster overhaul is almost complete.

Leach says the Cougars have played a lot of freshmen over the years “out of necessity.”

“What’s happened in our case, we’ll get freshmen in because each of our recruiting classes has improved,” Leach said. “In our case, we were pretty down in terms of the talent level of our team. ... Our freshmen will often be more talented than the guys who are here.

“We’ve kinda been playing leapfrog one freshman class after the next, just trying to fill the talent void that’s been here, and I think we’re starting to level out, but we’re not there yet.”

Thirteen freshmen, including seven true freshmen, are listed on the Cougs’ depth chart against Wyoming.


▪  WSU kicker Erik Powell has been named one of the three Lou Groza Award stars of the week. He’s up against Minnesota’s Ryan Santoso and Western Kentucky’s Garrett Schwettman this week. (You can vote here) Powell nailed field goals of 47, 46 and 47 yards in the win over Rutgers.

▪  In case you missed it, quarterback Luke Falk is the Pac-12’s offensive player of the week. It’s Falk’s second career player of the week award. Falk impressed the guys at so much that he’s No. 3 in David Lombardi’s Pac-12 quarterback rankings this week. Behind Cal’s Jared Goff and USC’s Cody Kessler. In front of Arizona’s Anu Solomon and Stanford’s Kevin Hogan.