The top 10 Washington State football players you need to know for the 2016 season.
QB Luke Falk, Jr.
Falk is Mike Leach’s latest prolific pupil, coming off a remarkable first season as a full-timer on the Palouse. With a firm grasp on Leach’s system, the young quarterback shredded defenses for 4,566 yards, 38 touchdowns and only eight picks to earn First Team All-Pac-12. In the red zone, Falk threw 26 TDs and not a single interception. The 6-4, 214-pound rising star, who was overlooked coming out of high school, throws a soft and accurate ball, even when he’s staring down pressure.
WR Gabe Marks, Sr.
After redshirting in 2014, Marks returned to the team stronger than ever last fall. He instantly became Luke Falk’s preferred target, catching a team-high 104 passes for 1,192 yards and 15 touchdowns to be named First Team All-Pac-12. The 6-0, 188-pound Marks is a dynamite all-around athlete, with the quickness to make yards after the catch and the straight-line speed to take the top off the defense. If he maintains his focus and work ethic, he’ll contend for this year’s Biletnikoff Award.
DE Hercules Mata’afa, Soph.
Washington State has lost a lot of talent up front to graduation. Mata’afa is back to pick up even more of the slack from the edge. He was a revelation in his first year of action, collecting 11 tackles for loss and a team-high seven sacks. At 6-2 and 245 pounds, Mata’afa is essentially an explosive outside linebacker, with the moves and the quick first step to abuse lumbering offensive tackles.
OT Cole Madison, Jr.
Now that Joe Dahl is off to the NFL, Madison will vie to become Washington State’s most decorated offensive lineman. He started all 13 games at right tackle last season, flashing the footwork and athleticism to protect the quarterbacks from incoming traffic. Madison, like all of the Cougar blockers, is well-sized at 6-5 and 305 pounds and will be looking to build off last year’s All-Pac-12 honorable mention recognition.
WR River Cracraft, Sr.
Cracraft’s production slipped in 2015. Yet, he remains a valuable cog in the Cougar passing game. He’s a sure-handed veteran of 28 career starts who caught 53 balls for 615 yards and four touchdowns in 10 games a year ago. The 6-0, 203-pound Cracraft is a reliable slot target, running good routes, catching the ball away from his body and showing a knack for locating the sticks. In many ways, he’s exactly the kind of receiver a quarterback—and a coach—wants at his disposal.
C Riley Sorenson, Sr.
Sorenson is about to enter his third year as the Wazzu starting center. Even after missing a pair of games, he was named honorable mention All-Pac-12, and will enter 2016 as one of the league’s premier performers at the pivot. For a 6-4, 327-pounder, Sorenson moves well for his size, and his know-how is beneficial to the rest of the huddle.
OG Eduardo Middleton, Sr.
Though often overlooked when compared to his linemates, Middleton continues to be one of the reliable cogs in the Cougar O-line. He’s started 25 games in a row, excelling at the all-important pass protection area of his assignment. Plus, Middleton has the size, 6-5 and 323 pounds, and the strength to overpower opposing linemen at the point of attack.
LB Peyton Pelluer, Jr.
Pelluer built on a strong rookie year by starting all 13 games in the middle a year ago. A smart and instinctive linebacker, he parlayed 101 stops, 11 tackles for loss and a pair of forced fumbles into honorable mention All-Pac-12. However, at just 6-0 and 229 pounds, Pelluer can get in trouble when run directly at by bigger and more physical players.
FS Shalom Luani, Sr.
Luani was an instant impact performer in his first season out of City College of San Francisco. He not only started every game for Washington State last year, but he was also named honorable mention All-Pac-12 for making 90 tackles, three stops for loss and four interceptions. The 6-1, 198-pound Luani will make mistakes and miss some tackles, but he plays the game at top speed at all times.
CB Darrien Molton, Soph.
Considering Molton’s introduction to college football was as a rookie corner in the Pac-12, he fared impressively well in 2015. In fact, he started all 11 games he played, and was arguably the Cougars’ best pass defender despite the lack of experience and a wiry 5-10, 173-pound frame. Molton debuted with 44 tackles, a pick and four passes defended, numbers that ought to improve in 2016.