The Washington State Cougars are coming off of an impressive season. However, they will be missing a lot of their production from 2016. Their top two wide receivers and best defensive player graduated, which leaves open a few starting positions.
If the Cougars want to have a third straight successful season, they’ll need a handful of players to step up. Here are five potential breakout players for the Washington State Cougars in 2017.
Washington State Cougars Breakout Players
1. Tavares Martin Jr. – WR
With Gabe Marks and River Cracraft both graduating, the Cougars need a few receivers to step up in their absence. Tavares Martin Jr. will have a great chance of being one of those wide receivers. The Cougars have one of the most interesting and entertaining offenses in college football under Mike Leach.
Although they ran the ball more often and more successfully last year than ever before under Leach, they still like to throw the ball more than any team in the nation. Quarterback Luke Falk is likely going to break multiple records during his final year in Pullman, and Martin may be the receiver to help him get there. He’s currently listed as the number one X receiver on the Cougars’ depth chart. Martin had 64 receptions for 728 yards and 7 touchdowns last season. Look for him to eclipse 1000 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
2. Robert Lewis – WR
Robert Lewis is another receiver that should benefit from Marks and Cracraft’s gradation. The 5’9 senior receiver isn’t physically imposing, but he’s quick, agile, and has great hands. He’s everything that Mike Leach looks for in an H receiver. He’s listed as the number one H receiver on the Cougars’ depth chart. Lewis will do most of his damage out of the slot. Although he only had 33 receptions for 394 yards and 3 touchdowns last season, he’s due to have more opportunities this season. Look for Lewis to top 700 yards and 7 touchdowns this season.
3. James Williams – RB
Although the Cougars don’t run the ball as often as most college football teams, they have a stable of backs that should all contribute this season. They have four running backs that can run the ball and catch the ball out of the backfield.
Being able to catch the ball is essential in Mike Leach’s system, even for running backs. Keith Harrington will likely be the fourth running back, and may be the odd man out. There was talk of him becoming a full-time receiver this season, but he’ll likely stay as a rotational running back. Williams will have to compete with seniors Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks. Wicks is the power back, but he has more wiggle and receiving skills than most guys his size. Morrow is the receiving back, but he can still run the ball between the tackles. Williams has the most talent of the four, and combines all of their abilities into one player. He’s a physical runner that brings Wicks’ toughness. He’s able to catch the ball out of the backfield like Morrow, and he can run routes like Harrington. Williams is only a sophomore and is still learning Mike Leach’s system, but has a chance to take over the starting job from the two seniors. It’s still likely that Leach will use a committee to help keep them all fresh, but Williams has the most upside and potential to be a game changer.
4. Marcellus Pippins – CB
Marcellus Pippins is one of the most inconsistent Cougars on the roster. He has immense upside and plays at an All-American level at times, but has lapses that sometimes lead to big plays for the opposing offense. Pippins has the confidence and swagger that is necessary in a successful cornerback. He has decent size at 5’10, but often plays a lot bigger than his size due to his elite athleticism.
The Cougars often play off coverage, which isn’t ideal for Pippins. He can play off coverage, but sometimes gets baited by double moves. Teams will use his aggressiveness against him. Pippins is at his best as a lockdown man-to-man corner. Unfortunately for Pippins, the Cougars don’t often give him chances of playing in press coverage. But like all great players, Pippins needs to adapt to his scheme. He made strides last season as an off coverage corner, and will need to make more strides this season. If the Cougars defense improves this season to the level of their offense, they’ll have a chance of winning the Pac-12. Pippins is not only a great player, but he’s one of the leaders of the defense. The Cougars will count on Pippins to play like a leader in 2017.
5. Jalen Thompson – S
Jalen Thompson impressed last season as a true freshman. He was still learning the position on the fly, but started to excel by the end of the season. He’ll still needs to make improvements, but has a chance of becoming a star. Washington State has put two safeties in the NFL in recent years (including first round pick Deone Bucannon), and Thompson could develop into the third. He is strong enough to make tackles in-the-box and is a fluid enough athlete to cover in man coverage. He’ll need to improve his coverage skills, but that’s something that comes with experience. He’s athletic enough to cover wide receivers and tight ends, but doesn’t always take the best angles to the ball. Thompson will sometimes mix up coverages on the back end which leads to big plays. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch showed a lot of trust in his true freshman last season, which should pay off in 2017. If Thompson keeps making strides like he did in 2016, he’ll have a great chance of becoming a legit NFL prospect.