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August 2, 2008The Washington State Cougars might be the hardest team to evaluate in the conference, despite the fact that only Stanford returns more starters. There are several reasons for that. First, the Cougs have a new coaching staff, led by former Eastern Washington head man Paul Wulff. He's a WSU alum, who played under Dennis Erickson and Mike Price, so he has seen some good times in Pullman. A few of his staff have spent time at WSU before too, but it's still a new group. Add the fact that the Cougs will be replacing quarterback Alex Brink and that they were hammered in the offseason with off the field issues, and the team is a little unpredictable.
In 2007, with the core of their offense returning, most WSU fans felt that the team should make a bowl game for the first time since their Holiday Bowl triumph against Texas. It wasn't to be though. The season got off to an inauspicious beginning when, after a fast offensive start, the Cougars were steamrolled by Wisconsin. Still, easy wins against San Jose State and Idaho proceeded conference play. Then the wheels fell off. A close home loss to Arizona State was wedged among road blowouts at the hands of USC, Oregon, and (gasp) Arizona. The Cougs bounced back with an easy win over a hobbled UCLA squad, and showed more signs of life in a tight loss in Berkeley.
By then, Washington State already had six losses, and their bowl chances looked bleak. A winnable stretch could have brought them to six wins, and the possibilities increased when the Cougars pulled away late with field goals to beat Stanford. But their hopes died when Brink threw seven INTs against Oregon State, contributing to a 52-17 home shellacking. Brink was able to go out in style with a huge performance against the rival Huskies, which dramatically ended with a 35 yard TD pass to Brandon Gibson with under a minute to play to break the tie. Still, it was the fourth straight season without a bowl appearance, and that cost Bill Doba his job.
Brink was a polarizing figure with the Cougar fan base. He left the school as WSU's all time leading passer, but some bemoaned his lack of consistency, and he didn't have the size and the big arm that past Cougar greats have. Gary Rogers does. At 6-6 with a cannon attached to his shoulder, some would compare him to Drew Bledsoe. But why is he only getting an opportunity to start as a senior? Good question. He has times struggled with accuracy, and he was not the quick decision maker that Brink was as a four year starter. Rogers gets to start from scratch with Wulff's shotgun, no huddle spread offense. The formations and pacing are similar to Oregon's scheme, but WSU won't be running the option. They'll be chucking the ball around the field. But Wulff does like to keep the offense balanced, as last year EWU ran the ball more than it threw. It's a dink and dunk off ense too, not the vertical style that we have seen with past WSU teams.
Junior Kevin Lopina is a transfer from Kansas State. Lopina is a duel threat guy who prepped at Concord De La Salle. He doesn't have great speed, but he's a crafty runner. He doesn't have a big arm, but he got the job done in high school. He kind of reminds me of Brink. Rogers is the guy though, and the team will rise and fall with him. If he doesn't play well, there's little chance the Cougars make a bowl.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Gibson had a spectacular year in 2007 as a first team all conference receiver. He gives Rogers a big play threat to rely on. From there, Washington State has some talent, but little experience. Jeshua Anderson had a nice freshman season, averaging an incredible 31 yards per catch on 12 receptions. The coaches like him a lot. In the slot, Daniel Blackledge will be the guy after playing sparingly as a freshman. Michael Willis has made the transition from defensive back, and he could be in the mix. I expect Gibson and Anderson to get the bulk of the catches, and there may not be a more dangerous duo in the Pac-10.
At tight end, the Cougars will go with Devin Frischknecht , who made an impact last season backing up Jed Collins. He's not a speed guy, but he's resourceful, and he made a few key plays last season. Senior Ben Woodard will serve as the second stringer. I don't expect the tight ends to combine for 70 catches as they did last season. The Cougars should do more running this season.
There could be some problems here. Dwight Tardy blew out his knee in the UCLA game last season, and is health is still in question. He should be ready to go, but will he be close enough to full strength to merit the starting job? If not, the nod will go to Chris Ivory if he's academically eligible. He's still got a couple of classes to finish up. Neither one of those guys is in the top echelon of Pac-10 running backs. Chantz Staden is a JC transfer who will get a look, and the staff likes what they have seen from freshman Logwone Mitz. This unit is a little shaky right now.
The good news is that four starters return on the offensive front, and they weren't too bad last season. None of the linemen made the all conference team though, even for honorable mention. They lose Bobby Byrd, who was a four year starter at left guard. The anchor of the group is left tackle Vaughn Lesuma, who started right away last season as a JC transfer and did a good job. He is bookended by Micah Hannam, who started all the games last season as a redshirt freshman. Junior Kenny Alfredis entering his third year as the starting center, and his experience can't hurt. Dan Rowlands will become a fourth year starter at right guard this season. Filling out the starting five will like be sophomore Andrew Roxas who made one start in 2007 as a true freshman. JUCO guy Zack Williams provides some depth. There are a lot of redshirt freshmen waiting in the wings, so it's crucial that the starters stay healthy. This should be the strength of the team.
Last season, these guys didn't scare anyone, and that resulted in a very poor defensive year for the Cougars, who gave up over 32 points per game. The Cougs are hoping to shake things up by moving Andy Mattingly from linebacker to defensive end., where he should thrive. Last season, he piled up eight sacks to lead the team. The problem is that Mattingly got arrested twice in the off season, and he is awaiting punishment from the school. Fortunately Matt Mullinex won his petition for a sixth season, so he will start opposite Mattingly. Kevin Kooyman, who made a few starts last season, gives the team some depth at end. Fevaea'i Ahmu will start at one tackle spot. He has not been the player that the previous coaching staff hoped he would be as a pretty heavily recruited prep. Former OL Andy Roof could spell him if Roof is allowed to play after his own off the field problems. Matt Eichelberger will have the responsibility of taking up double teams at the other tackle slot. WSU needs more production out of this group than they got last season, when they only got 20 sacks in 11 games when you factor out the seven they amassed against ASU.
There will not be a lot of blitzing this season, because Wulff believes in keeping other teams in front of you. WSU backers will be filling gaps and covering passing lanes. Greg Trent is the star of this group. He is the closest thing to a playmaker that this unit has, but getting only five and a half tackles for loss as a mike backer isn't impressive. Corey Evans has some good instincts against the run as a strongside guy, but most Pac-10 tight ends will eat him up in the passing game. At weakside backer, which is often the glamour position of the group, the Cougars have Kendrick Dunn, who is nothing special. The back-ups are green. WSU will occasionally use the 4-2-5 defense, which would take Dunn off the field. This group is experienced, but it is not one of the best five groups in the Pac-10.
It gets a little ugly in the back four. Devin Giles started every game at corner last year, and took his lumps. He's probably the best the Cougs have, but he might not be eligible to play this year. If Giles can't go, then it will be Markus Dawes, who barely played in 2007. Dawes will move to nickel back in a 4-2-5 if Giles is eligible. Chima Nwachukwu started at the other CB spot last season as a true freshman, and opposing teams went after him. The corner situation really hurt WSU last season on defense, so they need substantial improvement there. Alfonso Jackson returns as the starting strong safety, and he has blazing speed. Xavier Hicks, who was recruited as a QB and played some strong safety last season, is slated to start at free safety that is, after he serves a three game suspension for some debauchery if he gets reinstated at all. Otherwise, untested Easton Johnson will get a look. Washington State doesn't have much top flight talent, and the off the field issues could kill them at DB.
Wade Penner will take over the kicking duties after handling kickoffs exclusively in 2007. No one knows what to expect from him in his first season in the dual role. Reid Forrest is a rugby style punter who took over for Darryl Blunt last season after he got kicked off the team. Gibson will take over on kickoff returns, and Blackledge will handle the punts. The Cougars were poor in the return game last season, but were decent in coverage. This group is a big question mark at present.
So what's to like? The Cougars have a new coaching staff, a new QB, offseason turmoil, and a defense that was battered last season. That being said, I think WSU could surprise some folks. Wulff brings a winning attitude, higher expectations, and more discipline to a program that got too laid back under Doba. On offense, they have a solid line, explosive receivers, and competent runners to support Rogers. I suspect that he will have a good season as a result, and that the Cougs will take advantage of the Pac-10's unfamiliarity with Wulff's offense. The Cougars can't help but be better on defense, especially with a lot of QB turnover in the conference. I think the schedule is manageable as well. USC, Cal, and Oregon all must head to Pullman, as do Washington and Arizona. If WSU can beat the latter two at home, and upset one of the former, that gives them the opportunity to get to five conference wins with a split of t heir road games against UCLA, Oregon State, Stanford, and ASU. Add a manageable non-conference slate against Oklahoma State, Baylor, Portland State, and a June Jones-less Hawaii team, and six wins seem doable. I'm predicting 8-5 for Paul Wulff in his first season, which would make him the Coach of the Year in the Pac-10 considering the circumstances.
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