This might be the NCAA Tournament of could-have-beens. So many near upsets, more than we remember. Then again, the memory isn't what it used to be. And we've started, ever so slowly, to turn our attention back to football. Spring practices begin Thursday, which means it's time to look ahead. Where on the road to recovery is Washington State? Not as far along as the Cougars hoped, but there is a reason for that. Read on for the first look at our story that will appear in Sunday's S-R.
• We talked with Paul Wulff for a while this week, with our emphasis on the outrageous number of times the Cougars went under the knife this off-season. My first clue it wasn't going to be a long off-season in that regard was the day I saw starting center Kenny Alfred cruising around campus with a handicapped placard hanging from the rear-view mirror of his car. That can never be good for a college football team. Alfred was one of at least 25 players who had surgeries, the center cleaning up some problems in his hip he played through last season. (By the way, Wulff also talked with ESPN's Ted Miller, the gist of which you can find here. Speaking of Miller, he is currently ranking the Pac-10's top 30 returning players. My guess is the list will be thin in Cougars.) If there is a silver lining to all the kids having to miss at least part of the upcoming spring drills, it is, according to Wulff, the opportunities afforded to others. With Alfred watching, junior Andrew Roxas will play a lot of center, getting the chance to show he can be the starter in a year.
• OK, here is the story ...
PULLMAN – The off-season road to success hasn't been a smooth one for the Washington State football team. The detritus of a 2-11 season hasn't been easy to avoid.
The biggest obstacle left lying in the highway? A two-ton pile of injuries.
"No, never, not even half that amount," answered WSU coach Paul Wulff when asked if he'd seen anything like the more than two-dozen surgeries performed on Cougar players.
There were so many corrective measures taken – at least 25 surgeries from the Hawaii game to the first of the year, not including major ones during last season – they've poked a hole in the Cougars' off-season plans.
"What hurts us, obviously, is they're missing the most important part of their improvement phase," Wulff said, "which is this whole off-season of strength training and conditioning.
"It doesn't allow us to move forward as fast as we would like to have, obviously."
To supplement the lost time, WSU will use an expanded spring football schedule, allowing more weight training during the five weeks of practice that begin Thursday afternoon. After a first week of conditioning, the Cougars will only practice on back-to-back days once before spring drills end April 25. The days between will be spent in the weight room.
"We've spread it out a little bit so we can have a lot more focus with the weight-room part of spring," Wulff said. "We can't waste any time."
There were some major reconstructions done, most notably to the knees of sophomore quarterback Marshall Lobbestael's and senior running back Chantz Staden. But most of the surgeries were performed with an eye on the future.
"There was a ton of clean up," said assistant athletic director Bill Drake, the Cougars' head trainer. "A lot of it was managed decisions to clean it up. If you have a loose shoulder and you're a junior, do you roll the dice and play through that your senior year and then clean it up when your career's over?
"Because of the transition year, because we had a lot of young kids, we had a lot of young cleanups that we decided to do now."
Drake said a normal off-season contains anywhere from seven to 12 surgeries, though he can remember one year with 15.
The biggest unit hit, literally and figuratively, was the offensive line. Three players who started at some point last season – center Kenny Alfred (hip), tackle Micah Hannam (shoulder) and guard Brian Danaher (shoulder) – and a prized redshirt – Tyson Pencer (shoulders) – all underwent at least one operation and will miss most of spring workouts.
"They are in the trenches, aren't they?" Drake said. "There was a lot of that. I think kids are playing a lot of football, especially in high school. ... At that position, a lot of shoulder shock is happening. ... Shoulders are always present in the game of football, especially at that position, punching and being forced back."
Wulff sees this as an area that can be, if not eliminated, at least limited by diligent weight training.
"It gets back to us getting ourselves big and strong enough so we can reduces the number of injuries," he said, "and therefore, once we reduce those numbers, we can have more kids participating in getting bigger and stronger.
"It's a double-edged sword for us."
With players out, others have opportunities. A good example is quarterback, where Lobbestael, off team suspension stemming from an off-season drinking incident, will be held out of 11-on-11 action due to his knee. Senior Kevin Lopina and sophomore J.T. Levenseller will get the snaps.
"It's going to give them an opportunity to take all the team reps," Wulff said, "and see their progression. It's going to be very important for them to go through that."
Their targets will be different, with Brandon Gibson getting ready for the NFL and Jeshua Anderson for the NCAA track championships. Besides returnees like sophomores Kevin Norrell and Jared Karstetter, transfers Jeffrey Solomon (Easter Washington) and Johnny Forzani (Douglass College in Alberta) will get a chance to show their skills, though Solomon will be limited after back surgery.
There will also be interesting competitions at the running back spot, where the contenders run six deep, and tight end, where it doesn't.
The defense, which yielded an NCAA-record 570 points, has questions, though many of them spring from depth, not lack of same as last year. The back line is especially deep, if not proven.
"It should be a very competitive group," Wulff said. "We have some young safeties that have some really nice potential down the road. Same thing at the cornerback position, so it will be interesting to see."
The linebacking corps was hit by graduation, most noticeably Greg Trent, a four-year starter in the middle. Finding his replacement will be one task, though the list of candidates has grown.
"We had some players sit out that need to step up for us. Alex is a player that needs to step up," said Wulff of sophomore Alex Hoffman-Ellis, who redshirted after transferring from Moorpark College last season. "He's done a nice job in the weight room getting himself bigger and stronger, but ultimately he needs to produce on the football field. We think he has the capability to do that."
Senior Andy Mattingly will anchor the group, but once again he'll do it from a new perspective.
For Mattingly, he'll be back where he started at WSU. When the then-6-foot-4, 229-pound freshman walked on campus, he was installed at strong-side linebacker. He played on the weak-side as a sophomore and at defensive end most of last season. Now weighing at least 250 pounds, he'll take on the Pac-10's tight ends again.
Up front, Wulff sees depth, though little experience. Only tackle Toby Turpin and end Kevin Kooyman played much last season, but "we'll be able to go a solid two-deep and maybe an extra two or three guys," Wulff said.
The kicking duties will probably be split again, with junior Nico Grasu, on scholarship, handling the place kicking and vying only with senior Patrick Rooney to handle kickoffs now that Wade Penner transferred. Junior Reid Forrest returns to handle the punting.
The next five weeks will be spent laying a foundation for next year, Wulff said, and, hopefully, discovering some hidden gems that can help.
"Every year, inevitably, it seems like you get one or two players that you are very happy with," Wulff said. "I would love to see four or five this year. We need them."
Position to watch this spring
Five running backs that carried the ball at least 15 times return, headed by senior Dwight Tardy (133 for 481 yards), more than a year removed from his major knee injury. The wild card here is Cal transfer James Montgomery, who averaged 4.8 yards per carry for the Bears in 2007. The junior will challenge for the starting spot.
• That's it for now. We'll be back as events warrant. Until later …