PULLMAN – Given the past two years, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if some doubt had crept in for Washington State University football coach Paul Wulff.
Three wins in two seasons. Injuries both brutal in number and severity. A single Pac-10 victory. An almost complete roster makeover. Off-field problems. The departure of athletic director Jim Sterk, the man who hired him away from Eastern Washington.
It’s more than the drip, drip, drip of Chinese water torture. It’s been like waterboarding.
But still, as his third spring football session begins, Wulff remains undaunted.
“We have worked so hard since the day we’ve got here to rebuild this program,” Wulff said this week. “From where we started and we know internally where we’ve gone, we’re building this thing as fast as we possibly can. No program that needs a major overhaul is rebuilt in two years.”
But like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, Wulff can see the other side.
“I don’t feel pressure,” he said, “I feel like we’re going to take a big step. We’re excited about it. Wherever we are this fall, we’re still not going to be where we’re going be the following year or the year after that.”
Which brings us to today. The Cougars will kick off their 15 spring workouts and scrimmages with a two-hour session in helmets, shirts and shorts – the latter if Mother Nature cooperates.
When the workouts conclude with a spring game April 24, Wulff and his staff hope to have worked their way through a number of areas of concern, and put together a foundation for the fall season. Here are some areas that stand out:
Of the 48 players listed in WSU’s spring two-deep, former coach Bill Doba’s staff recruited only 15. And of the 22 players listed defensively, just four – junior Aire Justin and seniors Kevin Kooyman, Toby Turpin and Chima Nwachukwu – are holdovers.
“We bit the bullet last year on defense and we redshirted eight first-year freshmen,” Wulff said. “They could have played, based on how thin and how injured we were. But, ultimately, for the future of our program, to build the program we want, it’s going to help.”
Many of those, including highly touted recruits such as defensive backs Nolan Washington, Jamal Atofau and Anthony Carpenter, linebacker Andre Barrington and rush linebacker/defensive end Sekope Kaufusi, aren’t even in the two-deep. But they’ll receive their chances this spring.
As will junior college transfer Brandon Rankin, a 6-foot-5, 271-pound defensive lineman who will work at tackle and end, and redshirt freshmen Darren Markle, a 6-1, 225-pound weight-room legend, and converted running back Arthur Burns, both who will get opportunities at linebacker.
Burns, who despite being 5-11 and 218 pounds, is playing defense in part due to a glaring lack of speed last year. Of the nearly two-dozen players who started on the defensive side of the ball last season, only a couple had Pac-10 caliber speed.
The young players should help. And junior Alex Hoffman-Ellis, the fastest among WSU’s front seven, will be given the opportunity to showcase his wheels, moving from the middle to weakside linebacker.
“It may fit Alex’s talents better,” Wulff said of the outside spot.
The offense lost some speed when wide receiver Johnny Forzani decided to forego his senior year and try out for the Canadian Football League, but an incoming group of wide receivers and the expected return of running back James Montgomery – skipping the spring while rehabilitating from knee surgery and his nearly catastrophic lower-leg injury – should help in that regard.
The offensive line struggled with injuries and inconsistency last season, then lost its best player in senior Kenny Alfred. But for the first time in Wulff’s tenure, he believes the position will have the depth and athleticism to compete.
“There’s going to be some very good competition at every single position,” Wulff said. “We’re going to move a few guys around early in the spring to really come up with the best nucleus of players.”
Spring will be a time of experimentation, with new line coach Steve Morton moving players around and teaching a slightly altered scheme.
“It’s all about how you deliver the message,” Wulff said of Morton, “and whether that message translates into the kids playing well. He does that. And he’s done that for 35 years.”
Junior Andrew Roxas (6-3, 304), who sat out last year after an off-season illness, will get the first shot to replace Alfred at center, but Wulff said others will get looks as well.
Sophomore Tyson Pencer (6-7, 317, 20 pounds heavier than last fall) and Micah Hannam (6-4, 285), a three-year starter, will be pushed at tackle by incoming JC recruits Wade Jacobson (6-6, 307) and David Gonzalez (6-6, 281).
Sophomore Jeff Tuel seems to be being groomed to be the face of the program at quarterback, but Wulff said he and junior Marshall Lobbestael, who finally seems healthy after a devastating freshman knee injury, will both be given in-depth looks.
“As I told my team, everybody’s kind of the two right now,” Wulff said. “Jeff’s going to take the first snaps, but they are going to get equal reps – as much as we can balance it – (as) both have done well in the offseason.
“What’s important is both develop some rhythm and consistency executing our offense.”
One key aspect of spring is developing depth, and Wulff wants to finish the workouts with an idea of whether he can depend on veteran Dan Wagner or redshirt freshman David Gilbertson as the No. 3 quarterback. That would allow incoming freshman Connor Halliday to redshirt.
No matter who is throwing the ball, there has to be people catching it. And the Cougars don’t have a lot of depth heading into the spring. Proven talent, yes, depth, no.
“The four that have played a decent amount of football, need to get better,” Wulff said, referring to Daniel Blackledge, Jeffrey Solomon, Jared Karstetter and Gino Simone, all of whom caught at least 20 passes last year, “So they’re going to have to practice and practice hard and they’re going to have to still compete.”
Sophomore Simone is the only receiver listed at flanker, though, under receiver coach Mike Levenseller’s system, nearly all of the six available receivers should be able to play each of three spots. But the summer, when a new group of receivers get to campus, should be important for developing chemistry.
Of those new recruits, Wulff singled out junior college transfer Isiah Barton, from Fresno, as the key component.
“We feel strongly about him,” Wulff said of the 6-1, 190-pound burner. “There’s no question Isiah has to play. And there’s no question two or maybe even three of those first-year freshmen may end up playing.”