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Looking back at Pac-10 media day


COUGARS • UPDATED: 6:25 P.M.

The 2010 Pac-10 football media day is over. My guess is I’m about seven pounds lighter. I know my skin is three shades redder. After the lack of outdoor exposure this summer, today in the Rose Bowl was a rude awakening. Anyhow, we have some notes and stories from the event, held here for the first time. Read on.

• UPDATE: We’ve posted the unedited versions of the stories on the link. They are below our comments.

••••••••••

• We wrote a couple of stories for tomorrow’s Spokesman-Review (and today’s web posting), one a notebook that leads with coach Paul Wulff’s unequivocal endorsement of sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel as the starter heading into fall camp and one on Kevin Kooyman’s return for a fifth year (he was the Cougar player rep here). I’ll link them as soon as they are posted. But we have some more thoughts as well.

• I talked with a few players last week and they all played it right down the middle when it came to the quarterback battle. They all expressed support of both Tuel and Marshall Lobbestael, saying they feel like they can win with both. (By the way, I listed Tuel as 215-pounds in the story because that’s what he told me he weighed after the summer workouts. If you remember, Tuel was listed as 207 pounds on signing day, 2008, but he seemed a lot less when practice started last fall. Now back to my main thought.) Maybe that’s why Wulff wouldn’t come right out and say Tuel’s the man after spring ball. He came close, but he hedged. Now that’s summer is over and practice is about ready to begin, Wulff must feel it’s time to name a starter. But he took pains to reiterate the need for at least two players who could fill that role, carry the load of starting a game on the road in front of a bunch of hostile fans. He didn’t stop there, though. He said either Dan Wagner or David Gilbertson needs to grab the third-string spot in camp, because he wants to redshirt freshman Connor Halliday if at all possible.

• Wulff talked a little about the need for the freshmen receivers to step up and contribute, what with only four – Jared Karstetter, Gino Simone, Jeffrey Solomon and Daniel Blackledge – scholarship wideouts returning. The two freshmen receivers who Wulff expects to shine? Kristoff Williams (6-2, 205) and Marquess Wilson (6-3, 170), two big receivers who Wulff thinks can help right away. … Two freshmen that signed letters of intent, reciver Robert Jiles and running back Devontae Butler, did not qualify academically and won’t be available this fall. Another, defensive end Xavier Cooper from Tacoma, is still on the bubble. … Wulff talked about the loss of defensive tackle Dan Spitz for the first nine games due to a failed drug test. “Any college athlete … wants to be good,” he said. “They work their tail off to do that and they’re looking for every advantage to improve their physical being. I understand that desire. But we spend a lot of time on education, a lot of time educating them on the right things you can take and what you can’t. Make sure you check with the trainers on everything you take. Unfortunately it happened.” But there may be a silver lining. “The positive is it’s a great learning experience for our football team,” Wulff said. “Something like this creeps up and they say ‘hey, it is real.’ Now all of a sudden everybody kind of stands at attention a little bit. You better be paying attention.” … As fall camp begins, Wulff is looking for an improvement in the ability to make plays, game changing plays. And he believes the defense is ready to take that step. “We’re a year ahead on defense,” he said, “then where we are on offense. When we first got here we put more money in our scholarships on defense. … It was the starting point. Basically (we need to improve) all over, but we went heavy with defense because we felt it was the first thing we have to get going. You will start seeing more of those players play this fall that will make an impact.”

• It was obvious Wulff was tired after three days of running all over the country. He still has a Fox event tonight – the American Idol folks are supposed to be there – then will be able to head back to Pullman. His one fun note from New York: The hotel room was so small he and Sherry couldn’t figure out a spot to set up the ironing board.

•••••

• The stories have yet to be posted, so here are the unedited versions for you to read …

PASADENA, Calif. – Washington State coach Paul Wulff made official Thursday what most everyone else thought all along.

Sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel is the team’s starter.

“He’s our starting quarterback heading into fall camp,” said Wulff at the annual Pac-10 media day in the Rose Bowl. “If the season were to start today, he would be our starter.”

Tuel and redshirt junior Marshall Lobbestael battled for the starting spot throughout the spring, with Wulff ending the workouts hedging his bets.

“Ya, (Tuel’s) running with the ones, there’s no question,” Wulff said after the spring game. “And he’s doing well, there’s no question. We want to bring both those guys along, we’re going to need them both, they’re both going to need to play for us, there’s no question.”

It’s that need to have both prepare like starters that Wulff cited Thursday in explaining why he didn’t anoint Tuel after spring practice.

“In this conference, realistically, how many players start every game and play every game,” Wulff asked. “You have to have two players that have the potential and the ability to start.

“We’re being realistic with both of them. Both have to have the mindset of being starters.”

But there can only be one starter, and with the start of practice a little more than a week away, Wulff announced his choice.

As a true freshman, Tuel made his debut at USC in the season’s fourth game, relieving Lobbestael and completing 14 of 22 passes for 130 yards and one interception.

Tuel started the next five games before having his season cut short with a a slight dislocation of his kneecap against Arizona. For the season, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Tuel was 71 of 121 (58.7 percent) passing for 789 yards, with six touchdowns and five interceptions. His best game came at Cal when he threw for 354 yards and two scores.

Lobbestael started three games last year and relieved in six others, hitting on 67 of 144 passes (46.5 percent) for 655 yards. He threw for three touchdowns and eight interceptions.

During spring’s three scrimmages, Tuel was 25 of 41 (61 percent) passing for 297 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Lobbestael was 17 of 31 (55 percent) for 165 yards, two scores and three interceptions.

•••

For the first time in seven years, USC was not picked to win the Pac-10 football title by the West Coast media.

Maybe it was because the Trojans were picked to win again last season and didn’t, breaking a streak of nine consecutive years the poll had picked the champions.

Instead, it was the Oregon Ducks atop the 2009 standings, and it’s the Ducks atop the 2010 poll as well, earning 15 of a possible 35 first-place votes and 314 points overall in voting announced Thursday at the Rose Bowl, the final stop on a three-day conference media tour.

It was the first time the Ducks have been picked to win the conference since 2001 (they did), but if it sounds like Oregon doesn’t have a huge mandate, it isn’t. For the only time in the poll’s 49-year history, seven schools received first-place votes.

And second-place USC, which had 12 first-place votes, finished just three points behind Oregon. From there it was a large drop off to third place Oregon State (262 points).

Washington State, 1-11 last year, was picked to finish last for the third consecutive season, gaining 39 points. Ten points are awarded for first-place, nine for second with the totals descending from there.

“You just have to ignore it,” said senior defensive lineman Kevin Kooyman, WSU’s representative on stage with coach Paul Wulff, of the last-place pick, ” and think about the season, because football’s football. When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter what the media says – no offense to you guys.”

The other schools receiving first-place votes included OSU (three), Arizona (two) and Stanford, Washington and UCLA (one each).

•••

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian knows how lucky he is to have quarterback Jake Locker, who, despite the chance to go high in the NFL draft, returned for his senior season.

He also knows how important Locker is to the Huskies.

“If you want to win a Pac-10 championship, you have to find a way to win on the road,” in hostile environments, Sarkisian said. “Generally speaking, when you have a veteran quarterback, he’s the guy that can perform in that setting.

“For us, having Jake as we go to Cal, as we go to USC, as we go to Arizona, as we go to Eugene and play Oregon, as we go to Provo … and play BYU, we’ll take that advantage of having that senior quarterback who has been in those environments.”

The Huskies have another game that Sarkisian neglected to mention. At WSU for the Apple Cup on Dec. 4.

•••

The venue of the media day changed to the Rose Bowl’s field as commissioner Larry Scott moves forward in his effort to change the Pac-10’s culture.

“This is what all 10 coaches and players are playing for,” Scott said, “to be here, on this field, January 1. And we’re thrilled to be here today to talk about the conference’s future.”

That future, by 2012 “at the latest,” will include two new members, Utah (coming in 2011) and Colorado (scheduled for 2012 but might join sooner).

The present included the conference coaches and Scott traveling to New York earlier this week to sell the new brand – including a new logo and a high-powered video presentation – to the Eastern media.

“If you talk to people from around the country, they would say we don’t play ‘real football’ out here,” UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. “Going to New York and taking the East Coast bias head-on, I thought it was a bold move.”

The coaches admitted to being more than a little tired – some of it self-inflicted according to one – after going nearly non-stop for three days.

•••

USC first-year coach Lane Kiffin made the jump from Tennessee only to be greeted in Southern California by NCAA sanctions on the Trojans. Those penalties, which USC is appealing, included two years of no bowls, recruiting restrictions and scholarship limitations.

Not the job he expected, right?

“This is exactly the job I signed up for,” Kiffin said, “head coach at USC, the best job in the country.”

Kiffin admitted the changes were challenging, but “it is a new time at USC,” he said. “We’re moving forward. Obviously we have to deal with what’s happened in the past (but) we have a new president, a new athletic director (Pat Haden replaces Mike Garrett next month), new head coach, a whole new coaching staff.”

Former head coach Pete Carroll left after last season to become the Seattle Seahawks’ coach.

•••

Dennis Erickson may be coaching in the desert at Arizona State, but his northwest roots still show. Or maybe it’s just his age.

The former WSU, Oregon State, Idaho and Seattle Seahawk coach, who stills owns a vacation house in Coeur d’Alene, reached back a few years to praise Thomas Weber, the Lou Groza winner in 2007 who was injured last year.

“You don’t see many kickers come to things like this,” Erickson joked. “So Thomas, the last guy who I think was here was (Jason) Hanson from Washington State and I coached him too.

“I made him everything he was, so I’m probably going to help you a lot too.”

•••••

• That’s the notebook. Here is the Kooyman story …

PASADENA, Calif. – There is no way Kevin Kooyman thought he would get the call.

There was no way the defensive end would ever represent Washington State University at the Pac-10 media. His last shot, he was sure, passed last year when center Kenny Alfred was picked to sit with coach Paul Wulff at media day.

After all, Kooyman was a senior, ready to embark on his last year as a Cougar and ready to graduate with a degree in management operations in the spring.

But little things can change big plans, as Kooyman learned just a few weeks later. And because of that, there was Kooyman on Thursday morning, sitting on a stage in the middle of the Rose Bowl, talking about the Cougars’ chances coming of a 1-11 season.

After beginning that season with four tackles (including a sack) against Stanford, the senior was doing the usual scrimmage drills the next Wednesday. A hit, a twinge and a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament later, Kooyman was out of the Hawaii game.

Weeks of rehab followed, with Kooyman making efforts to get back on the field.

“I tried to come back for Oregon,” Kooyman said, “and I taped my knee up, put a huge brace on it and I couldn’t even move without it hurting. We tried, but it just didn’t work out for me.”

So Kooyman worked on his knee and watched practices and games. Finally it hit him. He might not play the rest of his last year.

“The doctor said if I played, I would be able to play at probably 60, 70 percent,” near the end of the season, Kooyman said.

That wasn’t good enough.

So, despite his academic progress, despite a pull to start his life, despite having spent his four years in Pullman battling minor injuries, Kooyman decided to apply for medical redshirt year. He got it.

But it has to be asked, what brought him back?

“I don’t know,” Kooyman admitted before trying to explain.

“After being hurt and seeing all the losses, you could tell the team wasn’t into everything, wasn’t really into the games,” he said. “I just felt like, if I got fully recovered, my knee, this next year would be the better opportunity for me and for the team, to have a successful season.

“It was just really frustrating because we just didn’t have that trust among the defense.”

So he spent the summer trying to build that trust. And he thinks he and his teammates succeeded.

While every player says the summer was the hardest ever, Kooyman comes armed with numbers.

There’s a sled he and his defensive linemates must push. On the last day of summer, 2009, they pushed it the designated distance 36 times. They celebrated.

This year the same group pushed past 36 by July 4th.

“This Friday, when we have the sled, we’ll probably push it around 50 times,” he said.

All that work will be tested starting Aug. 8, when practice begins, and Sept. 4, when the season kicks off at Oklahoma State. If the Pac-10 media is any indication, having picked WSU to finish last in the conference for the third consecutive year, expectations are not high. Except among Kooyman and his sled-pushing buddies.

“It is a motivation,” Kooyman said of the choice. “We knew that we were going to be picked last. It’s happened the last two years. And of course, with a one-win season, with a non-conference win, of course people were going to pick us to be last. And of course people don’t believe in us.

“But, you know, we believe in ourselves. That’s all we care about.”

•••••

• That’s all I have for tonight. We’ll be back in the morning with some notes and links. Until then …


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