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Race still on to be Cougs’ starting QB

This is the third of eight position previews of Washington State University’s 2009 football team. Today: Quarterbacks. Monday: Offensive line.

PULLMAN – No, there isn’t a starting quarterback yet.

With a week of practice left before Washington State University begins putting in the game plan for the season opener against Stanford, the Cougars’ Kevin Lopina and Marshall Lobbestael are still neck-and-neck for the coveted spot.

But don’t take our word for it.

“I just talked with the kids,” said WSU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Todd Sturdy this week, “and right now it is a dead heat.”

Pretty clear. In fact, Sturdy won’t even hint who might be ahead, the senior Lopina or the sophomore Lobbestael. He did, however, eliminate any chance true freshman Jeff Tuel would be the guy. Right now.

Sometime in the next few days Sturdy and head coach Paul Wulff will make the decision. They’ll elate one player and disappoint another.

For a while.

“I want to win games and if it means Marshall playing or both of us playing or me playing, that’s what it’s going to be,” said Lopina, who started eight times last season. “Obviously I’m a senior and it’s my last go-round so I’m going to try extra hard.

“But if the coaches feel he’ll give us the best chance to win or if they need me to go into a game and help us out as well, that’s what I’m going to have to do.”

Lopina, like any good quarterback should, identified the crux of the matter. The best chance to win. The decision will come down to that.

In the 2-11 gantlet that was last season, Lopina endured a broken bone in his back, bore the brunt of a majority of the 43 sacks the Cougars surrendered, threw 11 interceptions and zero touchdowns and, despite completing nearly 57 percent of his throws, heard about it on message boards throughout the offseason.

Lobbestael didn’t emerge unscathed. The knee brace – thanks to a sack-induced MCL and ACL tear suffered against Oregon State – on his left leg is testament to that. In his five games, he completed a little more than 50 percent of his passes, and had as many interceptions as touchdowns (four, two-thirds of WSU’s total).

But that was last year. This year one of them has to take the reins of the offense.

“I’m pleased with the progress but I’m also still striving to get more out of them,” Sturdy said. “I think they have an opportunity to get better. I think their best football is ahead of them if they continue to grow.”

The same can be said of the 6-foot-3 Tuel, who has shown a powerful arm and quick feet in practice. He was rising on the depth chart even before J.T. Levenseller, who played in four games as a freshman last season, decided to transfer to Eastern Washington. The plan is for Tuel to redshirt, but that was the plan for Levenseller last year. Injuries changed the plan.

“I think he’s got huge potential,” Sturdy said. “I think he’s got an opportunity to be a really good player. Now it just comes down to the development.”

For the WSU offense to develop, either Lopina or Lobbestael will have to play better than they did last season, when they both took their first college snaps.

“I think both have grown a lot and they’ve both made some strides,” Sturdy said. “We’ve got to pick one, yeah. And that’s coming.

“They need to understand too, hey, it’s deadlocked. It’s going to come down to executing the offense. They’re both getting lots of opportunities, they’re both in there with the ones, they’re both in there with the twos, they’re both getting all these repetitions.”

And one will be first string.