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Questions abound at WSU

COUGARS

We’re done with our story in advance of tomorrow’s spring football kickoff, so we thought we would post the unedited, long version here. Read on.

••••••••••

• Here’s the story, along with a few notes …

PULLMAN – Spring football is always full of questions. But coming off a 2-11 season, Paul Wulff’s first as head coach, Washington State probably has more than most this March.

When the Cougars take their first steps onto the practice field this afternoon at 3:30, they’ll start answering them. But it’s only a start. In 15 practice days spread over the next five weeks, Wulff and his staff won’t have time – or enough healthy players – to get to all the interrogatories they have.

Some that probably won’t be answered include:

Who will start at quarterback? With Marshall Lobbestael still hobbled by a knee injury and limited to non-contact related activities, a starter probably won’t come out of the spring unless Kevin Lopina or J.T. Levenseller is off-the-charts good;

Can the Cougars run the no-huddle effectively? “Our intent is to do more no-huddle,” Wulff said Wednesday. “It’s the idea and what we want to get accomplished. … Again, it’s all back to the comfort level of the players and the experience we have coming back that will, hopefully, allow us to do that.” In other words, the answer to the first question might answer this one as well.

Who will replace Greg Trent at middle linebacker? Right now, junior college transfer Alex Hoffman-Ellis, who was offered a scholarship in the middle of fall camp last year when another JC player didn’t qualify, is listed as the starter. But none of the four players listed at the spot started a game last year;

How good will WSU be in the fall? “It’s a tougher question to answer today,” Wulff said. “In a week or two I might be able to give you a better answer.” Still, he said, “I definitely think we’ll be much improved. But, again, that’s purely a guess in a lot of ways.”

There are a few questions, however, that should be answered over the next five weeks and the final responses may just set the tone for the fall. Here are four.

• How many defensive players can the Cougars count on?

Co-defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Chris Ball is looking for a core group of guys to “hang our hat on.”

“We’re looking for guys who can help us win,” Ball said. “If there is 22 of them, we’ll take 22 of them. But we’re looking for a core group of guys we can line up week in and week out and help us win in the Pac-10.

“It might be 11 guys, you know? We have to find 11.”

What Ball and the defensive staff are looking for is simple mental toughness, especially against the run, an area in which WSU was, well, run over last season.

“We’ve got to get an attitude to stop the run, get that done,” Ball said. “We’re going to talk about it, coach it, demand it. … It’s about mental toughness and physical toughness. We’ve got to get tougher.”

• Who will play tight end?

With Devin Frischknecht and Ben Woodard graduating – they had 33 of the 37 tight end receptions last season – the position is open. Senior Tony Thompson will be given the first shot, but is a little undersized at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds. Following him on the depth chart is 6-5, 251-pound senior Zach Tatman, a former basketball player who was injured all last season after transferring from Foothill College in Northern California, and junior Aaron Gehring (6-5, 244). Two redshirt freshmen, Skylar Stormo (6-4, 230) and Andrei Lintz (6-5, 231) are also going to get looks.

“We really do,” need someone to step up, offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy said. “That’s what’s spring is for. So all those guys are going to get thrown into the fire. It’s critical we build depth there and we build it fast.”

• Who benefits from all the injuries?

Ironically, the offensive line might gain from having starters such as senior center Kenny Alfred, who underwent offseason hip surgery, and junior tackle Micah Hannam, shoulder surgery, sit during the spring. They’ll join Brian Danaher and Tyson Pencer, who both underwent shoulder surgery, as spectators while others take repetitions.

“It forces you to play some different guys, maybe change guys around a little bit, and build depth at different positions,” Sturdy said.

Junior Andrew Roxas (6-1, 295), who started eight games at guard last year, will get snaps at center and junior college transfer Zack Williams (6-4, 293), who redshirted last season, at guard.

Williams turned heads last year with his speed and athletic ability while running with the scout team.

“He’s a guy were pretty high on and think has a lot of potential,” Sturdy said. “He’s going to get a lot of opportunity.”

“They have to make progress,” Wulff said of the line. “If we don’t up there, then the offense isn’t going to improve.”

• How will the logjam at running back be settled?

“Hopefully, by the end of spring, you have some sort of pecking order,” Sturdy said.

Senior Dwight Tardy (481 yards, 3.6 average) returns and heads into spring atop the depth chart. But he’ll be pushed by sophomore Logwone Mitz (441, 4.9), sophomore Marcus Richmond (69, 4.6) and Cal transfer James Montgomery, a junior. Seniors Chris Ivory (hamstring) and Chantz Staden (knee) will miss spring.

“What we do have there, I think, is we do have some competition,” Sturdy said. “That’s what we desperately need at all positions. That’s the key. We have to just have to keep creating competition.”

And answering questions.

SPRING NOTES: Junior Romeo Pellum, who started 12 games last year at cornerback, has been suspended indefinitely and will not participate in spring drills. Wulff said the suspension resulted from a violation of team rules and would not elaborate further. … After an off-season of weight work with strength and conditioning coach Darin Lovat, many players are listed from 5 to 10 pounds heavier than last season. Which is exactly what Wulff wanted. “You see very few, maybe a couple, who gained an extraordinary amount of weight,” Wulff said. “When somebody gains a lot of weight, you’ve got to be concerned on how that got there. Most of the time, if that occurs, it’s too much fat.” … Players singled out by Wulff for their offseason improvement included junior receiver Daniel Blackledge, sophomore offensive lineman B.J. Guerra, senior linebacker Andy Mattingly and senior safety Xavier Hicks. … Wulff said he expects to get more accomplished this spring than last year. “We have a much higher expectation of our performance and what we do,” Wulff said. “These guys know what to expect. … It kind of feels like our first season in the sense that we are all truly on the same page.”

• That’s it. We’ve been unable to find out the reason behind Pellum’s suspension, though we understand it isn’t related to academics. We’ll keep looking. … The possible contributors missing spring are, beyond those mentioned above: Jeshua Anderson, who is running track (ran into him today and he said he’s been putting on weight and is nearly 200 pounds right now), and injured players including defensive lineman Jessy Sanchez and linebackers Hallston Higgins and Myron Beck. … Montgomery is also listed as the team’s No. 1 kickoff returner. … The starters going into spring in the highly competitive defensive backfield: Devin Giles and Tyrone Justin at corners, Hicks and Chima Nwachukwu at safeties. Cal transfer Brandon Jones is listed by Giles at what was Pellum’s corner. … Wulff said tackles Steven Ayers and Joe Eppele need to step up this spring and fall for the offensive line to improve to a level it needs to be to compete in the Pac-10.

•••

• I hope that’s enough for now. We’re not done, however. We’re still working on a season-ending basketball story. That should be up here sometime tonight. Until later …


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