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Some WSU spring questions

James Montgomery led Washington State in rushing until a serious injury against SMU.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
James Montgomery led Washington State in rushing until a serious injury against SMU. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

As we begin week three of Washington State spring football - the Cougars return to the practice field tomorrow afternoon - we have some questions, if not a whole bunch of answers. So we thought we would take some time this morning, a day, as I've written before, which should be a national holiday – baseball's opening day, NCAA title game – and share those inquiries with you. If you are interested, read on.

• Can we start by stating the obvious? It's really hard to deduce much of anything from spring practice. Really hard. Especially when it's a team like WSU. Let's put it this way. If a team has an All-American at center and the nose tackle is manhandling him throughout spring practice, it would be safe to assume the nose tackle is pretty damn good, right? Well, WSU doesn't currently have any All-American players (some talent, sure, but no returning All-Americans), so it's hard to judge how they will do when they match up with players from Oklahoma State and the rest of the schedule. That's the weenie caveat we're starting with. ... So on to the questions I've been asking myself the past couple weeks. ...

• Where is WSU the most improved? That's easy. The offensive line has more depth and more athleticism than the past two years. And it seems to me I would have learned a lot more playing for Steve Morton than any other line coach I've seen at WSU. And his teaching style seems to fit well with the group he's working with. But even this area, which seems upgraded, has a huge question in the middle. Losing Kenny Alfred would hurt just about any college football team. Finding a capable replacement is still an ongoing task, one that must be answered if the group is to reach its potential. Is Andrew Roxas the guy? Chris Prummer? Steven Ayers? Someone else? More than any single position, this one might hold the key to the offense's success. ... Who is going to carry the ball? Really, I don't know. Chanz Staden is back to his pre-injury form – and actually better in some ways, including strength. But he's a real weapon as a third-down back and probably not as much so as an every-down ball carrier. Marcus Richmond was getting a look, but injured his knee Saturday and will probably not be back until fall. Leon Brooks is undersized, though quick, and Carl Winston hasn't been running with the abandon he showed last fall, which might have been because of his toe injury. So that leaves some question marks. Will James Montgomery (above) be able to contribute coming off such a major injury (my guess is yes, though maybe not at the level he displayed before)? Will one of the newcomers (Devontae Butler, Ricky Galvin or Eric Oertel) be able to step in and be the guy right off the bat (more than likely one of the trio will have to play some)? This is another key position that needs to be ironed out by Sept. 4. ... Is there a deep threat on the roster? With the loss of Johnny Forzani, right now the answer is no. The four receivers are all pretty damn solid, but none are blazing fast. Which again leads us to incoming folks. A lot of people believe Isiah Barton, the JC transfer from Fresno City, is that guy and there are enough incoming freshmen that one might just be capable of filling the role. But it's awful hard for a newcomer to absorb enough of this passing game in summer and fall camp to contribute right away. One may have to. ...

• Will the defense be better? This is a pretty easy one to answer. Yes. OK, I know a lot of you said to yourself, "how can it be any worse?" but that's not what I meant. There is more speed and athleticism on the field right now than any time in the past two years. Not enough, maybe, for the coaches' liking, but more. And there are more players capable of filling roles. But there can't be much more attrition, especially up front, if the group wants to be successful. Right now the Cougars are at least two deep at each of the four distinct defensive line spots. For example, Anthony Laurenzi and Bernard Wolfgramm are capable of doing well as the run-clogging tackle, with Josh Luapo another candidate when he gets healthy. After that it gets thin. So there isn't a large margin of error. ... Which defensive player might be a surprise? If Alex Hoffman-Ellis learns the nuances of the Will (or weakside) linebacker, he could be a force. His explosion across the line of scrimmage is unmatched by any other Cougar. There's a lot more to the position than just rushing the quarterback, though, and Hoffman-Ellis needs to become more consistent at all of it before he can reach his potential. Another possible breakout player is free safety LeAndre Daniels. Though strong-safety size (6-foot-2, 213 pounds), he been roaming around the secondary like free safeties are supposed to. A redshirt sophomore, he could make a big jump this year. ...

• What injured player is missed the most? Though we've talked about James Montgomery some, I would make a case Louis Bland fits this role. Mike Ledgerwood has been doing well at middle backer – though he missed the end of last week with a concussion – but Bland is one of those guys that just make plays. How and why, I can't tell you, but the undersized (5-10, 203) junior always seems to be in the right place at the right time. What more do you want from your middle linebacker? You want tackles? OK, he had 42 in six games last season, including four behind the line of scrimmage. If he gets healthy and stays healthy, 100 tackles are not out of the realm of possibility, especially if the defensive line also stays healthy. Which brings us to our next, and last, question. ... What is the key for being able to compete in the fall? Notice I didn't say win, because, honestly, I don't know how many games this team will win. Nobody does. But competing, staying in games, having a chance to win after halftime, that's the next step, isn't it? If WSU can avoid the crippling injuries that have hit the last three or four seasons, then it has a chance to compete against most everyone it plays. The other questions have to be answered, sure – and there are probably a lot more than I've articulated here – but with health will come depth, improvement and confidence. Without it, it could be another long trek through 12 games.


• That's all for this morning. We'll be back if news warrants and tomorrow with our usual links. Until then ...

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Vince Grippi
Vince Grippi is a freelance local sports blogger for He also contributes to the SportsLink Blog.

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