PULLMAN – Steve Morton may be in his first season on Paul Wulff’s football staff, but he has a history with Washington State University.
WSU’s offensive line coach played here. He was a graduate assistant here. The first dozen of his 36 coaching seasons were spent here.
But he doesn’t care about the past. Neither, it seems, do the rest of the Cougars.
“Last year’s team, that ’09 team, expired on the last snap of the ball and the new one was born that same time,” Morton said following those newborns’ first 2010 practice, a 2 ½-hour, helmet-and-T-shirt workout in bright sun and a slight breeze in front of a smattering of fans.
“Today is today. This is a new team,” Morton said.
A new team practicing on new turf. The worn-out Rogers Field turf was replaced over the summer at the cost of approximately $900,000, expanding the practice area with a new FieldTurf surface similar to that at Martin Stadium.
But it was the play on the turf, as WSU tries to rebound from a 1-11 2009, that caught Wulff’s attention and dominated the post-practice conversation.
“We executed pretty well for the most part, not many mental errors, things like that,” said quarterback Jeff Tuel, who came into the season No. 1 on the depth chart.
The 6-foot-3, 214-pound sophomore showed why he earned the starting nod, rarely missing a receiver in team drills, putting together one stretch of five right-on-stride throws in a late non-contact scrimmage.
“Jeff, he’s got some whiskers on his face this year,” Wulff said of Tuel, who started five games last season as a true freshman. “He’s definitely way ahead of where he was a year ago. (There was a) price of playing him last year as a first-year freshman. But we also knew the advantage of that was this year he would be better for it.”
“I got maybe one or two reps the first day last year,” Tuel said of the difference between the first day last year and this one. “That’s just crazy how it can flip like that in a year.”
The defense he was facing also featured a new look, adding an ingredient that was in limited supply last year: speed.
“We’ve got a lot of guys out there who can definitely run,” Tuel said. “I noticed it at the corner position a lot.”
Those corners – starters Aire Justin and Daniel Simmons, and a handful of reserves, including Nolan Washington, Anthony Carpenter, Terrance Hayward and freshmen Tracy Clark and Damante Horton – seemed to close on receivers more quickly than at any time last year.
“We’ve got guys coming back with experience, and that helps,” said senior safety Chima Nwachukwu, a four-year starter. “And then we’ve got a lot of depth.”
Another of the defensive youngsters, 6-3, 225-pound linebacker C.J. Mizell from Florida, at the very least should add to that depth. The freshman showed off his athleticism in the middle, though Nwachukwu knows he’s still reeling a bit.
“He’s just going to be thrown into the fire, that’s how it goes,” Nwachukwu said.
“He’s talented and he’s going to help us in some way this season. He’s just going to have to prepare for that mentally. Physically, I think he’s pretty much there.”
It’s that mental part Morton is working on with an offensive line that struggled last season. That’s ancient history, Morton said.
“You can’t think of the successes or the failures,” he said. “You can’t believe last year, one way or the other.”
But you can put it behind you.
“We’re obviously a little more in sync than we’ve ever been,” Wulff said. “They worked hard over the summer. It was obvious, not just in strength and conditioning but just doing football activities.
“That really showed up, just because they were able to come out here and execute at a much higher clip.”