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No Joe Dahl? No problem for WSU's 2016 offensive line

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In part six of an eight-part look at the past, present and future of each of the Cougars' units, we assess the offensive line, which continues to get better and better.

Riley Sorenson is a stalwart at center.
WSU Athletic Communications

With signing day in the rearview mirror and spring football just starting, now's a great time to take stock of each of the eight position groups on WSU's roster. Let's stick with the offense for a unit that will be replacing 40 percent of its starters but should still be really good: The offensive line.

Looking Back at 2015

End of Season Depth Chart
LT LG C RG RT
Starter Joe Dahl, RS-Sr Gunnar Eklund, RS-Sr Riley Sorenson, Jr Eduardo Middleton, RS-Jr Cole Madison, RS-So
Backup Andre Dillard, RS-Fr Cody O'Connell, RS-So Sam Flor, RS-Jr B.J. Salmonson, RS-So Jacob Seydel, RS-Sr

In Brief: Mike Leach loves to tell anyone who will listen what an awful offensive line group he inherited from Paul Wulff -- particularly the lack of depth and size. The thing about offensive lines, though, is that unless you're a blue blood school, there are no quick ways to rebuild a unit that had fallen as far as WSU's did; there just aren't enough ready made 300-pounders with strength and good feet to go around.

If you're WSU, that means you're facing a multi-year process of targeting guys with big frames whom you can develop in order to eventually end up with eight or nine guys who can start or step into the lineup at any given time.

In 2015, they finally arrived.

Led by its rock-solid left side, the offensive line was a strength for the first time in the Leach era. The team's adjusted sack rate actually took a step back in 2015, ranking 50th nationally after finishing 21st in 2014 and 40th in 2013. But much of that can be chalked up to Luke Falk's propensity to hold onto the ball a bit longer than his predecessor (especially early in the season).

Far more indicative of the progress of the line are two things.

First, from a pass protection perspective, the offensive line was stellar on the downs when the defense was most likely to be able to ignore the prospect of a run and simply try and get after the quarterback -- the team's sack rate on passing downs ranked 19th nationally, a massive improvement from the season before.

Second, the run game was finally a legitimate threat. Bill Connelly has a stat called "Adjusted Line Yards" which is basically his way of measuring how much of the run game can be credited to the offensive line (adjusted for opponent); in 2015, the Cougars improved from 118th to 88th, making room for the three-headed monster of Gerard Wicks/Jamal Morrow/Keith Harrington to improve the team's yards per carry (by running backs) from 3.9 in 2014 to a whopping 6.1 last season.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing? When all-Pac-12/NFL prospect Joe Dahl went down with a foot injury, the team was able to cover for him, first by sending Gunnar Eklund outside and bringing in Jacob Seydel, then by using redshirt freshman Andre Dillard, who played really well (up until the Apple Cup, anyway). Sam Flor was able to step in just fine at center when Riley Sorenson missed a couple of games, including the Sun Bowl.

WSU showed it had eight legitimate Pac-12 players. Having come a long way from days like this, the depth and skill that had been so lacking in 2012 had finally been achieved.

Looking Ahead to 2016

Projected Depth Chart
LT LG C RG RT
Starter Andre Dillard, RS-So Cody O'Connell, RS-Jr Riley Sorenson, Sr Eduardo Middleton, RS-Sr Cole Madison, RS-Jr
Backup Cedric Bigge-Duren, RS-Fr Drew Norvell, RS-Fr Noah Osur-Myers, RS-Fr B.J. Salmonson, RS-Jr Salmonson/Bigge-Duren

In Brief: The most obvious and pressing concern is replacing the left side of the line. Dahl and Eklund had been fixtures for three seasons, an eternity in college football. There might be a lot more trepidation, had Dillard not played a lot better than you'd ever have a right to expect at the end of last season.

A cool thing about Dillard is that he fits the athletic profile of a left tackle. Not that it's a requirement -- Dahl obviously performed great out there for the past two-plus years -- but there's something about seeing a 6-foot-5 guy at a lean and strong 290 pounds (he has the highest power clean on the team) smoothly and calmly stifle a pass rusher. The second play on this clip is Dillard making it look easy against Logan Tago in spring practice:

While Dillard's obviously got a long way to go to provide the kind of production Dahl supplied, the potential is plain to see. And that's super exciting.

Coug fans have been drooling over Cody O'Connell for years, and it finally appears he's poised to get his shot at showing what he can do with his massive 6-8/351 frame. He'll likely take over for Eklund, and it will be interesting to see if his size is an asset or a liability -- he's the one who gets out-leveraged by 6-3/296 Daniel Ekuale in the first play above.

With all the emphasis on the left side of the line, it feels like the center and right side get short shrift sometimes. That's a mistake. Sorenson and Madison were each all-Pac-12 honorable mention in 2015, and Middleton was named to the AP's all-Pac-12 first team.

Here's a fun clip of Middleton and Sorenson busting it down the field on a screen to Harrington against ... wait, who was this against again? I don't remember. Anyway:

In fact, I'll be more surprised if Sorenson, Middleton and potentially even Madison (who will be a junior) don't play their way onto NFL radars this season. Madison, in particular, could excite scouts -- he was a tight end in high school who had to grow into his body, and there are times he still runs to the second level like a tight end.

It's the presence of those three that should allow a little bit of time for the left side to figure out whatever they need to figure out.

One interesting aspect of the depth chart is that you see only nine guys on the two deep. Jacob Thorpe's reporting from spring practice for the Spokesman-Review has indicated that WSU might only be comfortable with those guys as potential contributors this upcoming season -- right now, Cole Madison is getting reps with both the first and second team, while Cedric Bigge-Duren is getting reps on the second team at both left tackle and left guard. The depth took a little bit of a hit when Flor decided to forgo his fifth year and get on with his life, so if this is an indication of where the depth stands heading into the fall ... here's to hoping there's no rash of injuries.

In the end, though, this unit should be Leach's strongest yet at WSU.

2017 Recruiting Outlook

In Leach's five recruiting classes, he's taken seven, six, three, five and six offensive linemen, but with only two linemen graduating, there's a chance this load ends up on the small side for WSU -- perhaps only four.

One guy WSU would love to land is Richland tackle Dontae Powell, a composite three-star recruit whom Scout rates as four stars. According to Cougfan.com, the Cougs offered him as a sophomore and are hoping that work pays off as he's entering his senior season:

Interestingly, WSU has a couple of offers out to junior college linemen. Via Britton Ransford:

Washington State rarely offers junior college offensive linemen, however City College of San Francisco's Elliot Baker picked up a WSU offer over the weekend. The 6-foot-7, 295-pound lineman has also been offered by Arizona State, Illinois, Iowa State, Louisville and Missouri. WSU safety Shalom Luani and recent signee Robert Taylor, also a safety, also played for CCSF.

Joining Baker in picking up an offer from Washington State as a junior college offensive tackle is Ronald Rudd III. The Chaffey College, Calif., product is listed at 6-foot-7, 320-pounds and also holds offers from Louisville and Missouri. WSU is clearly looking to add some junior college help on the offensive line in this class.

The Cougars were the first program to offer Portland, Ore., offensive tackle Jaxson Kirkland on Monday afternoon. Kirkland is listed at 6-foot-6, 320-pounds and should see his recruitment pick up significantly in the coming months. ...

Mike Leach and Clay McGuire can never have enough big men up front. On Wednesday, they extended an offer to Buena Park, Calif., offensive lineman Ryan Nelson. The 6-foot-6, 254-pound tackle is rated three-stars by Rivals.com and also holds offers from Arizona, Arizona State, Cal, Colorado State, Nebraska, Utah and others. ...

Staying in Northern California, Washington State extended an offer to Oakland, Calif., offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker. The 6-foot-4, 275-pound offensive tackle prospect is rated four-stars by the 24/7 Sports Composite and the No. 29 tackle in the 2017 class. In addition to WSU, Vera-Tucker holds offers from Oregon, Cal, UCLA, Washington and Nebraska.

Regarding the juco thing, it's possible WSU is a tad concerned with the development of some of the younger players, as would seem to be indicated by the spring rotations noted at the end of the previous section. Adding a junior or two to the mix could be a way to bridge that gap until the younger guys are ready.