PULLMAN — Life after Marquess Wilson doesn’t seem as if it will be an issue for Washington State’s receivers. Then again, they did get a head start.
Experience gained by underclassmen last season could pay dividends this year for WSU, which returns players who accounted for 70 percent of the Cougars’ receiving yards in 2012.
Their top pass-catcher, sophomore Brett Bartolone, is back. Though Wilson led the team in receiving yards last season, the five players who finished directly below him on the
list are still on the roster — and some of them,
such as Dominique Williams, benefited from Wilson’s absence toward the end of last season.
A year in coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense has improved communication, tempo and efficiency. And even though the Cougars haven’t played any games yet, Leach is sure they have improved after performances last season moved him to question theire toughness.
“They’re tougher now than they were last year,” Leach said. “We’ve got to get tougher yet, but they’re tougher now.”
Receivers coach Dennis Simmons likes to say he has five starters at the two outside receiver spots.
“I don’t hold my breath with any of those guys when they’re in the football game,” Simmons said. “That’s the way I want it. Like I’ve said before, I want to have a great unit, not one great individual.”
It’s anyone’s guess who might take the field with WSU’s starting offense Aug. 31 at Auburn. There are a couple of near-certainties, though.
For one, sophomore Gabe Marks likely will wind up as the starter — or at least play significantly — at “Z” receiver. The ultra-competitive Los Angeles native caught 49 passes for 560 yards last season. Only departed record-holder Wilson and Bartolone had more catches, and only Wilson had more yards.
Marks’ performance in camp this season has reaffirmed the thought that he could be WSU’s most dependable outside receiver.
“He’s always been a competitive guy,” said Simmons, adding that Marks has put on some much-needed weight. “Now he’s been able to hone that in and stay focused, and come out and work hard every day.”
Marks isn’t the only one. Isiah Myers is back after catching 42 passes for 438 yards last season, and his camp has been filled with deep routes caught for touchdowns.
Kristoff Williams, also a junior, seems primed for the most productive season of his career after the 6-foot-2, 216-pounder caught 22 passes during an injury-plagued 2012 season.
There’s also Dominique Williams, the sophomore who beat out Wilson for a starting job last season and wound up averaging 16.1 yards per catch on 34 grabs.
Vince Mayle, a junior-college transfer from California, has a big frame at 6-3 and about 240 pounds, and has been competing with the others since the first day of camp.
“Everybody wants to play,” Dominique Williams said. “They said top five (outside) receivers travel. We’re battling, just doing what we’ve been doing — feeding off each other, learning from each other’s moves.”
The inside receiver positions are similarly competitive. Bartolone led the team with 53 receptions last season, and he should figure prominently at the H-receiver spot. With him at that position are junior Rickey Galvin and true freshman walk-on John Thompson, formerly of Bethel High School.
Bobby Ratliff and freshmen River Cracraft and Robert Lewis should be in the mix at the “Y” position. Ratliff caught 30 passes for 399 yards last season as a sophomore, Cracraft has been one of WSU’s top newcomers and Lewis might be the team’s fastest player.
“The goals for the inside, as far as I’m concerned, (are) run every route as hard as you can and just make plays when they’re presented to you,” Bartolone said. “Whatever your job is, just do your job.”
KEEP AN EYE ON …
Cracraft and Mayle still are trying to refine their skills within the offense, but both will see the field in their first season.
At 6-foot, 198 pounds, Cracraft is solidly built for a player his age, and he has taken plenty of reps with the first- and second-team offenses throughout camp. Mayle’s size and strength make him a threat in the red zone, though Simmons said he’s versatile.
“Red zone, open field, short-yardage situations — he’s nice to have all over the field,” Simmons said. “He’s got some strengths and things he does that strengthen our unit as well.”
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The receivers are the deepest group on WSU’s team, and players such as Myers, Dominique Williams and Bartolone proved down the stretch last season that they’re capable of making big plays. The Cougars won’t lack for bodies at any of their four receiver positions, and there’s enough experience returning from 2012 that sizable improvement is reasonable to expect.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
Wilson commanded so much attention and so many passes in each of the past three seasons, there isn’t anyone on the current roster who has experience in college as a go-to guy, so to speak. Simmons and Leach don’t emphasize that kind of thing, but it will be interesting to monitor whether anyone takes control of the group.