March 22, 2009 in Sports

Cougs search for healing

Spring football starts Thursday
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Position to watch

Running back

Five running backs who carried the ball at least 15 times return, headed by senior Dwight Tardy (133 for 481 yards), more than a year removed from his major knee injury. The wildcard here is California transfer James Montgomery, who averaged 4.8 yards per carry for the Bears in 2007. The junior will challenge for the starting spot.

PULLMAN – The offseason road to success hasn’t been a smooth one for the Washington State football team. The detritus of a 2-11 season hasn’t been easy to avoid.

The biggest obstacle left lying in the highway? A two-ton pile of injuries.

“No, never, not even half that amount,” WSU coach Paul Wulff answered when asked if he’d seen anything like the more than two-dozen surgeries performed on Cougars players.

There were so many corrective measures taken – at least 25 surgeries from the Hawaii game to the first of the year, not including major ones during last season – they’ve poked a hole in the Cougars’ offseason plans.

“What hurts us, obviously, is they’re missing the most important part of their improvement phase, which is this whole offseason of strength training and conditioning,” Wulff said.

“It doesn’t allow us to move forward as fast as we would like to have, obviously.”

To supplement the lost time, WSU will use an expanded spring football schedule, allowing more weight training during the five weeks of practice that begin Thursday afternoon. After a first week of conditioning, the Cougars will practice on back-to-back days only once before spring drills end April 25. The days between will be spent in the weight room.

“We’ve spread it out a little bit so we can have a lot more focus with the weight-room part of spring,” Wulff said. “We can’t waste any time.”

There were some major reconstructions done, most notably to the knees of sophomore quarterback Marshall Lobbestael and senior running back Chantz Staden. But most of the surgeries were performed with an eye on the future.

“There was a ton of clean up,” said assistant athletic director Bill Drake, the Cougars’ head trainer. “A lot of it was managed decisions to clean it up. If you have a loose shoulder and you’re a junior, do you roll the dice and play through that your senior year and then clean it up when your career’s over?

“Because of the transition year, because we had a lot of young kids, we had a lot of young cleanups that we decided to do now.”

Drake said a normal offseason contains anywhere from seven to 12 surgeries, though he can remember one year with 15.

The biggest unit hit was the offensive line. Three players who started at some point last season – center Kenny Alfred (hip), tackle Micah Hannam (shoulder) and guard Brian Danaher (shoulder) – and a prized redshirt, Tyson Pencer (shoulders), all underwent at least one operation and will miss most of spring workouts.

“They are in the trenches, aren’t they?” Drake said. “There was a lot of that. I think kids are playing a lot of football, especially in high school. … At that position, a lot of shoulder shock is happening. … Shoulders are always present in the game of football, especially at that position, punching and being forced back.”

Wulff sees this as an area that can be, if not eliminated, at least limited by diligent weight training.

“It gets back to us getting ourselves big and strong enough so we can reduce the number of injuries, and therefore, once we reduce those numbers, we can have more kids participating in getting bigger and stronger,” he said.

“It’s a double-edged sword for us.”

With players out, others have opportunities. A good example is quarterback, where Lobbestael, off team suspension stemming from an offseason drinking incident, will be held out of 11-on-11 action because of his knee. Senior Kevin Lopina and sophomore J.T. Levenseller will get the snaps.

“It’s going to give them an opportunity to take all the team reps and see their progression,” Wulff said. “It’s going to be very important for them to go through that.”

Their targets will be different, with Brandon Gibson getting ready for the NFL and Jeshua Anderson for the NCAA track championships. Besides returnees such as sophomores Kevin Norrell and Jared Karstetter, transfers Jeffrey Solomon (Eastern Washington) and Johnny Forzani (Douglass College in Alberta) will get a chance to show their skills, though Solomon will be limited after back surgery.

There will also be interesting competitions at the running back spot, where the contenders run six deep, and tight end, where it doesn’t.

The defense, which yielded an NCAA-record 570 points, has questions, though many of them spring from depth, not lack of same as last year. The back line is especially deep, if not proven.

The linebacking corps was hit by graduation, most noticeably Greg Trent, a four-year starter in the middle. Finding his replacement will be one task, though the list of candidates has grown.

“We had some players sit out that need to step up for us. Alex is a player that needs to step up,” Wulff said of sophomore Alex Hoffman-Ellis, who redshirted after transferring from Moorpark College last season.

Senior Andy Mattingly will anchor the group, but again he’ll do it from a new perspective.

For Mattingly, he’ll be back where he started at WSU. When the then-6-foot-4, 229-pound freshman walked on campus, he was installed at strong-side linebacker. He played on the weak side as a sophomore and at defensive end most of last season. Now weighing at least 250 pounds, he’ll take on the Pac-10’s tight ends again.

Up front, Wulff sees depth, though little experience. Only tackle Toby Turpin and end Kevin Kooyman played much last season.

The kicking duties will probably be split again, with junior Nico Grasu, on scholarship, handling the place-kicking and only senior Patrick Rooney vying to handle kickoffs now that Wade Penner transferred. Junior Reid Forrest returns to handle the punting.

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