A new level of symmetry

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PULLMAN - At its core, there's a certain symmetry to the Air Raid offense. For all the variations and presnaps motions it employs to richen the mix, its base formations still pay tribute to the run and shoot offense that sired it - an outside receiver on either side, echoed by a slotback a few feet inside.

Washington State this season is introducing a new element to this symmetry - a biographical one.

Early in the year, it was widely noted that the Cougars' starting outside receivers hail from the same high school in Florida. Now, on many plays, the two inside receivers are former high-school teammates from California.

Renard Bell and Jamire Calvin, who both played for Cathedral High in Los Angeles, are just freshmen in eligibility and appearance. They still remind you of the kid brother you suspect is more talented than you, and knows it.

But that can be a good thing. Savvy beyond their years, Bell and Calvin are playing increasingly prominent roles for the No. 19 Cougars, furnishing two of the team's three touchdowns Saturday in a rousing 24-21 win over Stanford that kept them in contention for a Pac-12 championship.

Washington State (8-2, 5-2) faces Utah at Salt Lake City on Saturday (2:30 p.m. Pacific, Pac-12 Networks).

The Cougars' starting outside receivers are junior Tavares Martin Jr. and sophomore Isaiah Johnson-Mack, who both grew up in Belle Glade, Fla., and played for Dwyer High in Palm Beach Gardens. As a collegiate duo, their breakout game came in a 52-23 win over Oregon State in September when they combined for 19 catches for 273 yards and five touchdowns.

Seven weeks later, the Cougars' defensive duel with Stanford, in which every offensive coup was crucial, served a similar purpose for Bell and Calvin, who are members of a slotback rotation that includes two other Southern Californians: Kyle Sweet, who is starting ahead of Calvin at the Y position, and Brandon Arconado, who is backing up Bell at the H.

What they all have in common is a keen sense of elite-level football, ingrained in them while growing up in Florida or California, two of the football-richest states in the country.

Which state is football-richer? That's a hot topic of locker-room debate in Pullman.

"It's hard to compare," Calvin said of the two sets of former prep teammates. "I feel California is better than Florida either way."

For a couple of freshmen, Bell and Calvin are making big impressions in their new home.

This wasn't too difficult for Calvin, a 5-foot-10, 152-pound true frosh who'd been a four-star recruit with more than 50 scholarship offers. He's the sort of elite receiver who rarely gave Wazzu the time of day before coach Mike Leach brought his Air Raid to Pullman.

Bell, 5-8 and 162 pounds, is a speedy second-year freshman with a knack for springing open on vertical routes. A three-star recruit who needed a redshirt year at Wazzu before he looked entirely comfortable in the system, he has nonetheless impressed all season and is handily outdoing the outside receivers in yards per catch, at 16.1.

In fact, nobody on the team is drawing more sincere praise from Leach these days.

"He's always got a fantastic attitude," the coach said this week. "He never lets any previous play bother him. He always starts fresh each play, so he never goes in the tank. I think that lets him improve a lot, and lets him improve rapidly."

Bell and Calvin played only one season of high-school ball together and aren't as close to each other as Martin Jr. and Johnson-Mack are. The two Floridians are almost inseparable. Martin Jr. arrived at WSU a year before his friend did and clearly influenced his decision to follow him to the opposite corner of the country.

For all four receivers, the Air Raid was a primary draw - if not its symmetry, then its ample opportunity to make catches.

"I just told him it's your decision," Martin Jr. said of Johnson-Mack. "The next four years are going to be whatever you make it, wherever you go. I just feel like if you come here you'll get an opportunity to get a lot of balls. We were on the rise at the time. I was telling him, 'You get a spot, it will be like high school all over again. You're on the right (side of the formation) and I'm on the left, and we're just doing what we know best.' "

The two Angelenos, too, are reliving their shared high-school glory to a degree. But their stories are different. Bell, enamored of the Air Raid, orally committed to the Cougars nine months before he could sign with them.

Calvin, a year later, kept coaches in suspense until the last minute. In the final weeks, he committed to Oregon State, then switched to Nebraska. But he was still listening to the Cougars.

On the Friday before signing day, he met one final time with his WSU suitors: Roy Manning, the defensive assistant who runs the point for L.A. recruiting, and receiver coaches Dave Nichol and Derek Sage. Calvin wanted to know exactly why he should choose them.

"He had done his homework and had questions and was challenging us," Nichol said. "We kind of challenged him back. He's a thoughtful kid. He was one of the ones you could argue didn't chase the logo. He wasn't into the, 'How much Nike stuff do you get?' "

Behind the scenes, it's possible that the parents of Bell and Calvin were trying to get them on the same page. But Calvin probably made his decision independently.

"Very much his own person," Manning said. "It was more about going somewhere that can truly get him the football. Ultimately we got the nod and I'm glad he's here."

He feels the same about Bell.

"Every time those guys catch the ball, I'm like a proud dad out there," Manning said.

Calvin immediately made his presence known in preseason camp and, after a slow to the start to the season, has made visible strides the past few games.

"In college, everybody's attacking you - everybody's coming at you every play," he said. "Nobody's really scared. In high school, some people kind of get into stars and rankings and play a certain type of way. But in college everybody's coming at you full-speed every play. So it's actually really fun to compete at the highest level of competition every play."

But he doesn't seem surprised. He and Bell grew up in the shadow of UCLA and USC, just as Martin Jr. and Johnson-Mack always sensed the presence of Florida, Florida State and Miami.

Big-time football is what they all aspired to, and the neutral ground of Pullman gave them access to it.

"We did big things in high school," Bell said, "and to come here and do pretty much those same things - it's a big deal to us."

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Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2290.

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