PULLMAN – To the average Washington State football fan, it might look like there’s a heck of a fight for starting quarterback.
At Saturday’s final practice of the spring, several hundred WSU Mom’s Weekend fans watched Kevin Lopina complete 10 of 15 for 154 yards and rush 6 yards for a touchdown.
Gary Rogers tossed two touchdowns – one to receiver Michael Willis and one to tight end Devin Frischknecht – and threw 12 of 19 for 126 yards.
But the Cougars’ coaches have their man.
“Gary’s our starter right now,” quarterbacks coach Todd Sturdy said. “I tell all the quarterbacks, you gotta come to the office ready to work. You gotta be at your best every day.
“Right now, Gary’s doing great things. I’m very pleased with where he’s at, but I’m very pleased with where Kevin’s at, too.”
It was in the last two weeks that Sturdy noticed the two QBs made some strides, he said. They finally got comfortable with the new no-huddle, spread-offense system.
Rogers and Lopina both know where they are, but both know the position could still be up in the air if one of them starts turning more heads – or starts bending under pressure.
“I think the offense fits me and Gary really well. We move around, flow, run – we’re moving the chains,” Lopina said. “Knowing what to do in tough situations (improved). … Last year, we didn’t convert when we needed to, so we worked on that a lot this spring.”
“I think we took tremendous strides in just mentally getting the offense down and knowing where everybody’s supposed to be on the field,” Rogers said. “I’m confident. I’m just trying to get better every day. I know I’m the leader of the team.”
Head coach Paul Wulff said his goal come fall is to have just that, a team – one that can overcome adversity and worrisome situations. Depth is a big concern, and there are the unforeseeable speed bumps that can affect how a team performs.
“When I say that, I’m not talking about wins and losses,” Wulff said. “I’m just talking about being a great team to each other and forming a tight bond.”
This summer could help. The coaches expect their players to practice together and prepare for the season.
The coaches can’t require or encourage practice – the players must organize it and motivate themselves. They still have a lot to get used to with the new coaches’ strategies.
Just about everything changed this spring for the Cougars. They have a new coaching staff, a new offensive scheme, a new game pace, a new quarterback, a new defensive strategy.
Despite it all, Wulff said there wasn’t anything about which he was disappointed.
“Really, all 15 practices this spring went fairly well. I don’t think that the players ever came out and wasted a day,” Wulff said.
“Of course, we’ve missed some people at times, but the players who were practicing got better. And now we need an important summer, and over fall camp the players who missed a lot of practice opportunities this spring really need to catch up.”
Those missing players contributed to one thing that has many of the coaches worried – depth. Wulff said he thinks the starters showed promise this spring, but the team’s depth in all positions is concerning.
Take running back, for example. By the end of spring, redshirt freshman Joe Campbell was the only completely healthy back, and essentially allowed the Cougars to keep practicing, Wulff said.
Christopher Ivory was out most of the spring to focus on academics – and he pulled a leg muscle Saturday on what would have been a 24-yard touchdown run.
As Ivory navigated the on-field autograph tables after practice on crutches, Wulff said it was too soon to tell what he did and how serious the injury is.
Still the expected starter, running back Dwight Tardy is undergoing rehab after a knee injury last season. He’s expected to be ready for fall camp. The other backs – Logwone Mitz, Marcus Richmond, Jace Perry and Casey Thometz – saw limited practice time this spring because of injuries.
Nevertheless, some of them were healthy enough to take some reps Saturday. Mitz rushed for 41 yards on six carries, Perry had three for 42 yards, Campbell tallied 30 yards on five tries, and Ivory collected 29 yards before the injury on his fourth carry.
The only rushing touchdown was Lopina’s.
On all fronts, the team still has to get sharper, Sturdy said.
“I think our best football is ahead of us yet, but we have a long ways to go,” he said. “We’re just not a mature football team yet.
“It comes with just working hard, getting these kids to buy into the system and understand what it means for them to have some accountability and responsibility. It just takes time.”
After announcing earlier this week the team would not tackle, the coaches decided the defensive squad needed that practice, coach Wulff said. Saturday’s scrimmage, though not a full spring game, had the Cougars tackling each other. … The coaches gave receiver Brandon Gibson a break, keeping him out of harm’s way and recognizing his “phenomenal” work this spring, Wulff said. … Cornerback Chima Nwachukwu broke up a touchdown pass by Rogers and sacked Lopina. New transfer Myron Beck, playing safety, forced a Jace Perry fumble on an option play. … Backup quarterback Cole Morgan completed 6 of 8 passes for 58 yards, including two long shots to Pullman native Michael Meines. QB Marshall Lobbestael went 1 of 3 for 12 yards. Freshman J.T. Levenseller got just one snap and was sacked. … Kicker Patrick Rooney, whom coaches said Thursday was shaping up to be the Cougars’ No. 1 kicker, botched three field-goal attempts – one from 40 yards and two from 50 yards – that the other kickers, Wade Penner and Matt Myers, were able to hit. … Early in the scrimmage, the offensive line negated two consecutive touchdown runs – a reverse to Daniel Blackledge and a rush up the middle by Ivory – with false-start penalties. … Receiver Reid McEllrath caught five tosses for 65 yards.