This week we chatted with Washington State assistant head coach/special teams coach Eric Russell to check in on how the Cougar special teams are doing, which position battles to watch, and how the recruiting trail is these days.
Let's get down to business. You need to replace four-year starting kicker Andrew Furnery and returner Leon Brooks. Who did you like for those spots in the spring?
ER: Kicking wise, I think Erik Powell had a very solid spring. As far as field goals, I think he was 25 of 30 in the spring and showed the ability to bounce back from a miss, not let it affect him the rest of the day. We feel good there, but we still have a couple guys walking on, transferring in to provide him some competition. So we'll know more about that in the fall. Obviously, he has never been in a game, never been in front of a crowd but I think with his makeup and demeanor ... he'll be fine. [For] returner, I think Leon did a steady job. He ranked in the top half of the Pac-12 last year. Finding that guy, you want a guy who can make some big plays for you but at the same time, No. 1, get the ball fielded and maintain possession of the ball. There are a few guys we've been looking at back there. I don't know if anyone has stood up and just stolen the job yet. We're looking at River Cracraft, Jamal Morrow, Rickey Galvin possibly -- some of those guys or some that are coming in. It's a wide open job and it'll probably heat up for fall camp, but we have to make a decision fairly quick so we can rep that guy as much as possible.
Is this more changeover than you've experienced or can remember in just one offseason?
ER: It's a lot. You don't probably wish that upon yourself. But when you come in somewhere new, it's all new to you, too. So you don't really know what you have and Andrew did a great job and we were obviously fortunate that he had some experience. But, it does leave for a lot of restless sleeping at night in the summer wondering what you've got and how are these guys going to react. There are going to be a lot of open jobs, probably with some freshmen.
You mentioned Powell as a strong candidate for the kicking spot. He hasn't kicked in a game. What did you do to simulate that experience for him and other kickers during the spring?
ER: I think being coached by me is pressure. During spring in practice we'd line up the kickers and the competition. One is kicking for the offense, one is kicking for the defense. We do a lot of distractions -- hollering, screaming, yelling at them, kicking for up-downs, or whatnot. Putting a lot of the focus on the team on those guys. And then as many live reps as we could in different situations. That's pretty much the majority of what it was, the competition at the end with the emphasis being on the team trying to root for them or against them or a lot of distractions or putting something on the line in regard to their teammates.
Washington State just put in some incredible new facilities. Are you feeling the perception of the Cougars changing as you go out on the recruiting trail?
ER: The reception from all the high school players and coaches has been good. I think the toughest thing for us right now is that everyone is hearing about these things but still getting kids to Pullman. We're not the most easily accessible campus in the Pac-12. But when they do get on campus, they're pretty much blown away. They see this Pac-12 institution and top-notch facilities and Coach [Mike] Leach and the leadership of the university. I think that puts us in the mix more when we can get them on campus. But as far as the reception and being able to at least get in the door on kids, yes, it has been improving each and every year since we've been here. Hopefully, people see the results on the field. That'll take care of a lot of it too. Recruits want to win games. Guys see the opportunities that a lot of young guys have had here since we arrived and [recruits] are looking for the opportunity to come up and play early in their career, if they're deserving. I think there's some excitement. There's still a lot of work left to be done in the recruiting process, but I think we're able to compete now.
OK, some offseason stuff … were you on the fishing expedition with Leach when he caught that giant fish? And do you have any other good Leach stories from your time coaching together?
ER: Yeah, I was fishing with him but I wasn't in his boat. So obviously [the guides] knew to make sure which boat caught a fish. I got to watch them land that. It was pretty cool watching them all take turns reeling in that big fish. It was funnier watching the guys posing for the picture -- who actually wanted to touch that fish and who was a little bit scared of that fish. Obviously Coach wasn't one of those [scared] guys. I was with him the one year at Texas Tech and through two seasons now. He's good to work for. For the most part, he trusts you to do your job and if you do your job every day, to the best of your abilities, he's going to support you and be there for you. With my [special teams] role, he doesn't tie my hands with personnel issues. He's going to let me use the people we need to use to be successful. Some places maybe aren't that free with their personnel and their elite players. … I'm with you guys, you never know what's going to come out of his mouth or where his train of thought is coming from. He can get on a tangent. Those staff meetings can go a little longer if someone asks him a question about something off the cuff. You better just get comfortable for a while. He's tough but you know what's expected.