PULLMAN – Fifty-three times last season Washington State University quarterbacks went back to pass and never had the chance. That’s the number of sacks the Cougars’ offensive front gave up in the 1-11 season, the second-worst total in the nation.
In WSU’s most recent scrimmage, facing a defensive group that was bent on getting to the quarterback, whether he be sophomore starter Jeff Tuel or junior Marshall Lobbestael, the Cougars ran 76 plays.
The quarterbacks weren’t sacked once.
Offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy sees that as a huge sign of progress.
“We went a whole scrimmage and didn’t take a sack,” Sturdy said, “and we didn’t have all of our offensive line healthy.
“Now a lot of things goes into that, it’s not just the O-line,” Sturdy continued, talking in his office Tuesday after the Cougars’ practice was postponed until next week. “Those four (scholarship) receivers’ knowledge and experience has grown, our quarterbacks are further along than we’ve been, our O-line is fundamentally further along than we’ve been.
“I’m pleased with where we’re at. I know we’ve got to get better, but I’m pleased.”
Last year’s woes of a battered offensive line – 10 players started, with the same group starting no more than two consecutive games – contributed mightily to the offense’s struggles, as WSU averaged just 7.4 points a game in Pac-10 play. Those struggles also cost line coach Harold Etheridge his job, replaced by veteran Steve Morton.
The voice may have changed, but the line’s progress has been handicapped again, with two starters – guard Zack Williams (6-foot-4, 304-pounds) and center Andrew Roxas (6-2, 304) – missing most of spring with injuries and other key pieces – tackles-turned-guards Micah Hannam (6-4, 285) and Tyson Pencer (6-7, 317) – limited by academic commitments.
Still, the line play has improved, if only through the addition of junior college transfers David Gonzales (6-6, 281) and Wade Jacobson (6-6, 307) at tackle and the emergence of some young backups.
With the Cougars expecting the defense to take strides this fall, the offensive emphasis is on playing smarter. The four accentuated areas: avoiding turnovers, limiting negative plays, execution before and after the whistle (no dumb penalties), and producing on first down.
“We’ve reached some benchmarks,” Sturdy said of the scrimmage statistics, “and our kids are seeing that, they are experiencing it. That’s encouraging.”
But who will be running that offense at quarterback is still a matter of competition between Tuel and Lobbestael, Sturdy said. Throughout the spring, however, it was Tuel who received the majority of the first-unit snaps.
The receiving and running back groups may need some bolstering in the fall and help seems to be on the way.
Newcomers like junior college receiver Isiah Barton, freshman wideouts Kristoff Williams, Bobby Ratliff and Marquess Wilson and running back Rickey Galvin will be given opportunities.