March 29, 1998 in Sports

Cougs Plugging Holes WSU Spring Football Figures To Be More Competitive Than Usual With Most Positions Still Undecided

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Having a wide-open offense once meant unleashing Ryan Leaf, Michael Black and the Fab Five. Now, it means wide-open competition for all but a couple of positions.

Auditions formally begin Monday afternoon, when Washington State University holds its first spring football practice of the ‘98 season. The Cougars have yet to release anything close to a two-deep roster, and who can blame them?

The quarterback race, like the tailback race, is wide-open. The offensive line is another mystery. In fact, if the season started today, WSU might not have anyone to hike the football.

Seldom has a WSU football team entered spring drills with so much unsettled. To top it off, coach Mike Price is talking about changing the offense, if only for a week.

“We’re not going to run any one-back this first week,” Price said. “We’ve got eight scholarship backs and (only) three scholarship receivers, so we’re going to force ourselves to go to the two-back offense and give these guys an opportunity to carry the football and to see what we can do.”

If the two-back talk sounds familiar, it should. Price has hinted at using the run-oriented formation in past years, only to revert to the one-back, multiple-receiver formation that has served him so well.

“This is the year, this is the year,” Price insisted.

In the past, WSU has used two-back sets to jump-start the running attack, a strategy that worked brilliantly last season in road victories against Illinois and Oregon.

This year, the two-back approach might ease the transition from Leaf to junior left-hander Steve Birnbaum, who will miss spring drills with a knee injury, or junior-college transfer Bryan Paul.

The one-back offense requires a top-flight quarterback to function smoothly, most agree. It worked with Drew Bledsoe in the early ‘90s, and it worked with Leaf over the last two seasons. In between, it floundered.

Whether Price goes with two running backs beyond the first week of spring may depend on how comfortable he is with the quarterback situation.

What follows is a position-by-position look at the spring:

Quarterback

Price speaks highly of Birnbaum and Paul, as one might expect. But his praise for freshman Jason Gesser has gone beyond the norm, leaving the impression that the quarterback race may not be settled for some time.

Gesser, a 6-foot-2, 195-pounder from Honolulu, arrives in the fall.

Running back

If nothing else, the two-back approach gives a number of players an opportunity, helping to narrow the field of candidates to replace 1,000-yard rusher Michael Black. DeJuan Gilmore is the early favorite, but that doesn’t mean much, especially since JC All-America Kevin Brown won’t arrive until fall.

Receiver

Senior Nian Taylor caught 22 passes for 570 yards and six touchdowns last season, but he’s the only returning receiver with any significant experience. At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, he has all-conference potential.

Receivers coach Mike Levenseller expects Alexe Rodopolos (6-3, 200), a JC transfer who enrolled last season, to contribute right away. He’ll get plenty of chances this spring because Leaford Hackett, Tim Leomon and DeAndre Douglas don’t arrive until fall.

Returnees Farwan Zubedi and Troy Woody will also compete.

Offensive line

Left tackle Rob Rainville is the only returning starter, but Price thinks he has plenty of depth to fill out the remaining four spots.

“We’re young and we’re very talented on the offensive line,” Price said. “We need to find a center and a long-snapper.”

Joe Criscione, Ryan Tujague and Lincoln Walden-Schulz redshirted last season as JC transfers. They’ll be counted on to emerge, and soon.

Defensive line

Gary Holmes, Taeao Salausa and Rob Meier are proven players. Jonathan Nance is up to 234 pounds, an increase of about 20, but that’s still a bit light to be more than a situational pass-rusher.

Ing Aleaga, a 6-3, 280-pound freshman tackle, should provide an immediate boost when he arrives in the fall.

Linebackers

Steve Gleason is the only returning starter. He’ll spend a portion of the spring playing baseball, presenting several younger players with additional opportunities.

Raonall Smith appears ready to have a breakthrough spring. At 6-2 and 232 pounds, he has the speed to restore the Cougars’ ability to blitz.

He might have played last year, if not for an ankle injury.

Grady Emmerson, James Price, Serign Marong and Austin Matson give defensive coordinator Bill Doba additional options.

Defensive backs

This could be WSU’s most talented unit, led by free safety Lamont Thompson, who emerged as the best freshman DB in the Pacific-10 Conference last season.

Right cornerback Dee Moronkola is another returning starter. Strong safety Torry Hollimon started three games and seems like the logical successor to Duane Stewart.

There are a number of options at left corner. Earl Riley, who redshirted last season after transferring from Merced (Calif.) JC, will probably challenge Jermaine Hunsaker and LeJuan Gibbons.

JC transfer Chris Martin arrives in the fall.

“Linebackers and DBs should be the strength of our team next year,” Price said.

Notes

WSU will practice each Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday for the next four weeks.

A Mom’s Weekend scrimmage is April 18, with the Crimson and Gray Spring Game set for April 25. Informal scrimmages are scheduled for April 4 and 11.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

WSU FOOTBALL GLANCE

Lettermen returning/lost 35/25

Starters returning (6)

OT Rob Rainville, TE Love Jefferson, DT Gary Holmes, LB Steve Gleason, CB Dee Moronkola, FS Lamont Thompson.

Other key returnees (8)

WR Nian Taylor, QB Steve Birnbaum, RB DeJuan Gilmore, DE Rob Meier, DT Taeao Salausa, DE Jonathan Nance, CB Jermaine Hunsaker, SS Torry Hollimon, CB LeJuan Gibbons.

Key players lost (17)

QB Ryan Leaf, RB Michael Black, WR Chris Jackson, WR Kevin McKenzie, WR Shawn McWashington, WR Shawn Tims, OG Jason McEndoo, C Lee Harrison, OG Cory Withrow, OT Ryan McShane, DE Dorian Boose, DT Leon Bender, DE Shane Doyle, LB Brandon Moore, LB Todd Nelson, SS Duane Stewart, CB Ray Jackson.

What to watch this spring

The quarterback race. With junior Steve Birnbaum out until summer with a knee injury, JC transfer Bryan Paul has a chance to become the front-runner. Sophomore Paul Mencke and freshman Sam Baurichter will also compete.

Eric Price. For the first time since 1991, Mike Price won’t coach quarterbacks. That duty will fall to his oldest son, 31-year-old Eric. As the QB race heats up, it will be interesting to see if Mike Price keeps his distance.

The tailback race. DeJuan Gilmore was a capable complement to Michael Black last season, but WSU has seven other running backs on scholarship, meaning Gilmore has little security. The favorite may be JC All-America Kevin Brown, who won’t arrive until fall.

Top five questions

Does the offense stand a chance after losing so many key players?

Can Bryan Paul learn the offense quickly enough to unseat Steve Birnbaum as Leaf’s probable successor?

Who will play center?

Can former starting cornerback LeJuan Gibbons re-emerge as a factor in the secondary?

Is Mike Price finally serious about the two-back offense?

Ready to break out

LB Raonall Smith, DB Earl Riley, WR Alexe Rodopolos.

This sidebar appeared with the story: WSU FOOTBALL GLANCE Lettermen returning/lost 35/25

Starters returning (6) OT Rob Rainville, TE Love Jefferson, DT Gary Holmes, LB Steve Gleason, CB Dee Moronkola, FS Lamont Thompson.

Other key returnees (8) WR Nian Taylor, QB Steve Birnbaum, RB DeJuan Gilmore, DE Rob Meier, DT Taeao Salausa, DE Jonathan Nance, CB Jermaine Hunsaker, SS Torry Hollimon, CB LeJuan Gibbons.

Key players lost (17) QB Ryan Leaf, RB Michael Black, WR Chris Jackson, WR Kevin McKenzie, WR Shawn McWashington, WR Shawn Tims, OG Jason McEndoo, C Lee Harrison, OG Cory Withrow, OT Ryan McShane, DE Dorian Boose, DT Leon Bender, DE Shane Doyle, LB Brandon Moore, LB Todd Nelson, SS Duane Stewart, CB Ray Jackson.

What to watch this spring The quarterback race. With junior Steve Birnbaum out until summer with a knee injury, JC transfer Bryan Paul has a chance to become the front-runner. Sophomore Paul Mencke and freshman Sam Baurichter will also compete. Eric Price. For the first time since 1991, Mike Price won’t coach quarterbacks. That duty will fall to his oldest son, 31-year-old Eric. As the QB race heats up, it will be interesting to see if Mike Price keeps his distance. The tailback race. DeJuan Gilmore was a capable complement to Michael Black last season, but WSU has seven other running backs on scholarship, meaning Gilmore has little security. The favorite may be JC All-America Kevin Brown, who won’t arrive until fall.

Top five questions Does the offense stand a chance after losing so many key players? Can Bryan Paul learn the offense quickly enough to unseat Steve Birnbaum as Leaf’s probable successor? Who will play center? Can former starting cornerback LeJuan Gibbons re-emerge as a factor in the secondary? Is Mike Price finally serious about the two-back offense?

Ready to break out LB Raonall Smith, DB Earl Riley, WR Alexe Rodopolos.


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