Note: This is the third of eight position previews of Washington State University’s 2010 football team. Today: Offensive line. Wednesday: Running backs.
PULLMAN – When the curtain fell on last year’s one-win season, Washington State University’s offensive line was beaten down.
It had yielded 53 sacks. It had powered, to use that term loosely, the running game to a pitiful 2.4 yards per carry average. And it was saying goodbye to its best lineman, All-Pac-10 performer Kenny Alfred.
Something had to change.
Almost everything did.
Out was line coach Harold Etheridge after two years. In was veteran Steve Morton, a former Cougar.
Out, besides Alfred, were three former off-and-on starters, two victims of career-ending injuries, one to the CFL. In were two junior college transfers and a prized freshman, athletic but inexperienced.
Positions were jumbled, roles changed, schemes revamped.
The past was just that. The future starts in less than two weeks, when the rebuilt and rejuvenated group takes the field for the first time in Stillwater against Oklahoma State.
“They’re so much more confident in their assignments,” coach Paul Wulff said last week. “They are executing together as a group so much better. And they are developing some toughness.
“It’s going to be a process this year, but I really believe we are the right path to improvement and they’ll get better and better.”
The guide on that path has been Morton, a 36-year coaching veteran who has coached four first-team All-Americans, five Morris Trophy winners, given to the Pac-10’s best, and, more than two decades ago, one WSU head coach.
That would be Wulff, who wanted Morton as his offensive line coach two years ago. Morton, though, was tied up as the offensive coordinator at San Jose State under Dick Tomey.
But Tomey retired after last season, the Spartans went another direction with their staff and Morton was available.
Now he’s in Pullman, spouting folksy sayings, developing skills and building confidence and leadership in a group that lacked those ingredients last year.
“We’ve come a long ways from the beginning of camp,” said starting right guard B.J. Guerra. “Coach Morton stresses communication and leadership on the offensive line.”
He’s also not afraid to make changes.
Senior Zack Williams, who started seven games last year at left guard, has moved to center, where he succeeds Alfred, a four-year starter. Williams will make the line calls, but, unlike his predecessor, he’s not on his own.
“Coach Morton really stressed having leaders step up, not only just centers but guards and tackles,” Guerra said, adding anyone can help with the calls. “The more eyes you have on the defense, the more you see. We communicate that way.”
Guerra, a junior, and tackle Micah Hannam, a fifth-year senior who has started 37 games, anchor the right side of the line, though Hannam is being pushed by true freshman John Fullington, a 6-foot-5 athlete who seems bigger than his 268-pound listed weight. On the other side are the two JC transfers, left tackle David Gonzales and guard Wade Jacobson, each 37 major college starts behind Hannam.
“Nobody has a job set in stone,” Williams said. “You have to be prepared to work with everybody equally.”
Maybe, but that group seems set headed into the opener, though all but Guerra have played different positions this fall.
With key veteran backups Andrew Roxas and Tyson Pencer slowed by injuries and illness (both are back), the first two weeks of practice have tested the group’s mental agility – something Morton and Wulff want.
“You have to prepare yourself, to have guys who you can plug in at any time,” Wulff said. “The more you work some of that, then if it does have to happen in games, then it’s not a shock to the group’s system.”
There may be a downside, however.
“It effects the cohesiveness of the offensive line,” Guerra said, “but I think we’ve done a real good job (with) guys taking the responsibility knowing they’ll probably get moved around today.”
And have emerged tougher.
“We stress the guys in the trenches are the ones that stir the pot,” Guerra said. “Basically all that means is we’ve got to get everybody going. It starts with us up front.
“Coach Morton tells us, when you leave the field after a game, the opposing team is going to know you were the toughest offensive line they’ve ever faced.”