PULLMAN – It’s hard to believe there could be a college football season much tougher than the one Washington State University endured last year.
And, to ensure it doesn’t happen again, the Cougars are trying to get tougher.
“If all things are equal, or if you’re lacking in an area, speed or size or somewhere, you can make that up by being tough,” said Chris Ball, WSU assistant head coach, who ran Sunday’s season-opening practice while coach Paul Wulff served his NCAA-mandated three-day suspension.
“One thing we’ve made a living on around here for a long, long time is being a tough football team,” Ball added. “We’re trying to bring that back. But it’s got to show on every face. … If you’re not tough, we’re going to talk you into being tough. We’re going to be tough at the end of this camp.”
That was not always the case last year. Not only did WSU suffer through a 2-11 season, the Cougars lost seven games by at least 31 points and came within a point of setting an NCAA single-season record for points allowed.
“We can’t even talk about last year,” Ball said. “It was a bad thing. We don’t even want to mention it. We’ve got to put that behind us and move forward.”
Which began Sunday.
“It’s huge to start fresh completely on Day 1 and just start having fun again, like football is supposed to be,” senior linebacker Andy Mattingly said.
And the coaches didn’t forget that. After the more than two-hour practice in helmets, T-shirts and shorts ended, Ball, who shares defensive coordinator duties with Jody Sears, gathered the defense together. He pulled out a gray hard hat sporting a Cougar logo, said a few words and handed it to junior safety Chima Nwachukwu.
“It’s for the guy who is the toughest at practice each day,” said Mattingly, who missed most of spring with a torn bicep tendon. Asked if he wanted to earn it tomorrow, he smiled and said: “I want it every day. I might even go out and buy my own hard hat and paint it.”
Nwachukwu not only impressed the coaches with his toughness, but he also came up with the day’s most exciting play, with a big assist from freshman middle linebacker Darren Markle.
Going up against the first unit in a seven-on-seven passing drill, Markle stepped in front of tight end Tony Thompson and tipped Marshall Lobbestael’s pass into the air. Before the ball could hit the ground, Nwachukwu swooped in to snatch it, securing the defense’s lone turnover.
But, without pads, it was a day devoted to repetition of individual skills and team schemes, not scrimmaging. Hitting of any sort will have to wait until at least Tuesday, when shoulder pads are added.
Without pads, many of the defensive players rolled up their sleeves to show off the offseason gains made in the weight room.
“We’re definitely stronger, we look good. We’re starting to look the way we did back in the early 2000s,” Ball said.
If anyone needed a reminder of where they needed to be, there was an example nearby. Chad Eaton, more than a decade removed from his days as an all-Pac-10 Cougar defensive tackle but still sporting his NFL physique, prowled the sidelines. And he was noticed.
“Yeah, he’s the type of guy we’re looking for,” Ball said. “He was the definition of tough.”