Gabe Marks would appreciate this final twist, this unexpected postscript to his stellar Washington State football career.
He worked tirelessly for five years, became a master of his craft and eventually broke the Pac-12 record for career receptions. And he probably won’t be the toughest guy to replace this season in the WSU wideout corps.
In all likelihood, that will be River Cracraft. Not because he’s a superior player but because he left fewer understudies capable of immediately filling the breach at inside receiver. And Marks, on the outside, left a bunch of them.
Day after day, Tavares Martin Jr., Isaiah Johnson-Mack, CJ Dimry and Dezmon Patmon have turned heads. They all spent one to two years studying Marks, and they all combine some semblance of his diligence with a ranginess he could never match.
The shortest of the group (in the primary rotation) is the 6-foot-1 Martin, who’s also the most experienced. And the least seasoned, the 6-3 Davontavean “Tay” Martin (no relation to Tavares), has one of the longest reaches.
“It’s the biggest group I’ve had,” said sixth-year WSU coach Mike Leach, whose team opens Saturday night at home against Montana State. “We’ve got five outright tall guys out there right now that are pretty good.”
If the Cougars solve a few issues on the inside, they could field one of the best groups in school history.
There’s only one senior among the outside group, but their progress has been so rapid that Derek Sage, the first-year WSU assistant coach whom Leach switched from slotbacks to outside receivers shortly before preseason camp, can afford to focus on nuances of technique, route-running and mentality rather than harping on fundamentals or assignments.
“All these kids are similar,” Sage said, making a partial exception for Tay Martin, only because he’s a true freshman. “These kids know these plays. It’s about, ‘Was that man or zone? What did you see here? Why did you do that? It wasn’t necessarily wrong, but why did you do that?' And then we go back to the meeting room and say, ‘Hey, Dez did this and he was open here.’ ”
The most accomplished is the fast and knife-thin junior Tavares Martin, who reprises his starting role at the X (far left) position where he caught 64 passes last year for 728 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Cougs give up virtually no footspeed when Martin is spelled by Dimry, who might be taller than his listed 6-5. The former junior college player won an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA in the offseason and seems to be reveling in this coup. He was a standout of preseason camp.
Replacing Marks at the Z (far right) spot is sophomore Johnson-Mack (6-3, 216), who adopted Mark’s No. 9 jersey and is doing a credible imitation of him on the field. Don’t be shocked if he doubles his 35 receptions of last year, even while sharing time with Patmon (6-4, 212), a sophomore who has made strides.
Imitating Cracraft is a trickier matter. The second-most productive receiver in school history (behind Marks) brought to the inside positions a rare blend of craft, toughness and third-down instincts, and the Cougs’ campaign to replace him has been complicated by injuries and the offseason departure of Kyrin Priester.
Dave Nichol, who coached outside receivers last year and is now working with slotbacks, agreed that Cracraft, in this time and place, is an even bigger loss than Marks.
“Just so steady, “ he said. “And you appreciate his athleticism – although people love to say at times it was limited – when you look back and watch tape of the some of the things he did. That’s what we’re trying to replace in the inside room. But we have a little more athleticism – we recruited a little bit more. If those guys can play, that’s still to be determined.”
Filling the Cracraft void was always going to be a committee effort anyway, led by Kyle Sweet (6-0, 193), a junior with 47 career receptions. Presumably he'll get help down the road from quick senior Robert Lewis (5-9, 167), who owns 117 career catches, but he’s been out lately with an undisclosed leg injury.
The best recent news at slotback has been the rapid assimilation of true freshman Jamire Calvin (5-10, 152), the plum of the 2017 recruiting class who might be as smart as he is talented.
Second-year freshman Renard Bell (5-8, 162) looks ready to join the mix but he’s another apparent injury victim at the moment. Hence more opportunities for youngsters like true freshman Travell Harris and sophomore Brandon Arconado.
There’s a potential boost to be had from sure-handed Easop Winston (5-11, 189), who was a sensation of spring workouts and has had some bright moments lately. But he’s a JC transfer who has yet to redshirt – and may this year.