This is the fourth of eight position previews of Washington State University’s 2009 football team.
Today: Offensive line. Tuesday: Defensive line.
PULLMAN – Sometimes offensive line coach Harold Etheridge says things that Kenny Alfred doesn’t really get. But the Cougars’ senior center understands the sentiment.
For example, “Kenny’s our bell cow up front,” Etheridge says about Alfred, a three-year starter and on the watch list for the Rimington Award, which honors the nation’s best centers.
“It’s a term I’m not necessarily used to,” says Alfred, laughing off Etheridge’s tag. “It’s more of an out-of-the-Pacific Northwest term.”
Alfred, from Gig Harbor, Wash., is all Pacific Northwest, from his lumberjack-like features – including the shaggy beard – to his intellect, which is straight from Seattle’s coffee houses.
What really rings the eclectic English major’s bell is discussing the relative merits of novels, or music, or, thankfully for Cougar fans, the satisfaction of knocking a big ol’ defensive lineman back a few yards.
“Run blocking is a lot of fun,” the 6-foot-2, 289-pound Alfred said. “That’s when you actually get to grind your feet into somebody and push and push and push.”
Nothing was too fun for Alfred last season.
Though he started all 13 games and earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors, his performance was limited by the constant drumbeat of pain in his right hip.
No wonder Etheridge says, “he’s our leader, not only at the position but throughout the whole football team,” which, by the way, is the role a bell cow plays in a dairy herd.
Off-season surgery, coupled with intense rehabilitation, fixed the hip and slimmed his body down, allowing Alfred to get back to playing the game the way he believes he can.
Just in time, too. For the Cougars to rebound from their 2-11 season, the offensive line has to improve. And Alfred knows the steps it must take.
“No. 1 is run the ball,” he said. “It’s how you have an offense that’s productive. We have to have a balanced attack. We have to be able to move the ball when we go to run it. If we can’t do that, we can’t rely on passing all the time.”
“We’ve made some pretty big leaps this year,” said Etheridge, in his second year coaching WSU’s line. “There’s a lot of carryover from what we did in the spring. We’re still continuing to grow.”
Joining Alfred on the line are three others who have earned spots. Junior Micah Hannam has started 25 consecutive games at right tackle, though last year he could hardly raise his right shoulder. Sophomore B.J. Guerra started the final three games at right guard and cemented that spot during the spring and summer, when he added weight and strength. And junior college transfer Zack Williams, who redshirted last season, was seemingly earmarked to start at left guard from the day he stepped on campus.
Which leaves the all-important left tackle spot.
“Right now, we just have to solidify who’s going to be our left tackle,” Etheridge said. “I feel pretty good about four of the five, it’s just the left tackle position still up for grabs. We’ve got to get that solidified.”
The candidates include the current front-runner, sophomore Steven Ayers, and a pair of large Canadian imports, freshman Tyson Pencer, coming off shoulder surgery, and junior Joe Eppele.
“We’re kind of rotating guys and stuff, but I’m pretty excited about Tyson Pencer,” Etheridge said. “He’s a redshirt freshman that has a lot of athletic ability. He’s coming on, making strides and pushing there. I like his future.”
Alfred, from the trenches, sees things he likes as well.
“(Ayers) has changed a whole lot,” Alfred said. “He’s revamped his focus a lot. Last fall, I can honestly say, I don’t think he was as focused as he should have been. This year he’s come miles … and he’s ramped up his toughness.
“I’m eager to embrace the competition. I know they’ll press each other. … I have confidence we’ll get a guy who’s shown himself to be competitive and tough enough to come out and win the position.”
Just like their bell cow.