The thing that might help Washington State’s offensive line out the most on Saturdays in 2014 are Thursday nights from 2013.
The Cougars run a program called Thursday Night Football during the season, in which they run 30 to 40 live plays every Thursday evening. The night is specifically geared toward non-starters so that they can get more focused reps with the coaches and build chemistry with one another.
And for Washington State, there might not be a group that benefited more from those scrimmages than the underclassman offensive linemen considering the Cougars return just two offensive linemen -- redshirt juniors Joe Dahl and Gunnar Eklund -- who played last fall.
Following the spring season, coach Mike Leach said the secondary and offensive line were the two position groups that made the most advancements during the 15 practices. Much of that, according to offensive line coach Clay McGuire, is because many of the guys now taking first- and second-team reps were playing on Thursday nights last fall, gaining confidence and building chemistry.
McGuire also cited bowl practices as a big help to this group. Because the Cougars focused on getting younger guys more reps and experience through those practices, they weren’t starting without a foundation in the spring.
“It gave us a good idea of which guys were ready to go,” McGuire said. “I think we had some pretty good spring practices out there.”
The Washington State offensive line made major strides from 2012 to 2013. The Cougars improved their yards per play (4.92 in 2012, 5.48 in 2013) and while they are a pass-heavy team, the offensive line did get a bit more push at the line of scrimmage, which allowed them to increase their yards per rush from 1.38 in 2012 to 2.86 in 2013.
Most impressively, the Cougars’ sack percentage was cut nearly in half. In 2012, the offensive line allowed a sack on 8.4 percent of passing plays. In 2013 that statistic dropped to just 4.1 percent.
So, how much can those numbers really be improved upon considering the Cougars lost three key contributors on the O-line?
According to McGuire, a lot.
“These guys obviously have less experience than the guys we had returning for last year,” McGuire said. “But I believe we’re right where those guys were and actually maybe a little ahead of where those guys were coming out of spring last year.”
The Cougars released a post-spring depth chart, which listed the starting five (moving from left tackle to right tackle) as: Dahl, Eklund, redshirt sophomore Sam Flor or sophomore Riley Sorenson, redshirt junior Jacob Seydel and redshirt freshman Cole Madison.
McGuire mentioned that Madison -- a player who came in as a tight end -- and Flor had initially caught his eye during Thursday night scrimmages. He also said redshirt freshman Cody O'Connell is a player who stood out through Thursday nights last fall and practices this spring.
So while Thursday nights might’ve been a huge help and where so many contributors for the 2014 offensive line built their foundations, their next step will be taking that play to Saturdays. But with how impressive the group has looked so far, McGuire isn’t too worried about that.
“I think we have a chance to be a pretty good group up front,” McGuire said. “It’s our job to go out as a group and be better than we were last year. So I’m excited about that.”