PULLMAN – If there is one area Washington State’s football team has been rebuilding this spring, it’s been the kicking game.
“We graduated a lot of very talented guys who had been around for a number of years,” said Dave Ungerer, in his second year as the Cougars’ special teams and running backs coach.
Punter Reid Forrest and long snapper Zach Enyeart, both four-year standouts, and three-year kicker Nico Grasu all exhausted their eligibility, leaving gaps that need to be filled.
“Two of those guys are going to sign and play in the (NFL),” said Ungerer, referring to Forrest and Enyeart. “It’s hard (to replace them). I think we’re doing OK, but we’re comparing apples to oranges, I believe. We’ve just got to keep grinding, keep getting better.”
The Cougars began the process of cross-pollination last fall, when then-freshman Andrew Furney took over the place-kicking chores from Grasu with five games remaining in the season.
This spring, which entered its last week Tuesday with a 2-hour, 20-minute full-pad practice, Furney has assumed the mantle of favorite to be the Cougars kicker, but is facing competition from Lewis and Clark High’s Alex Gauper and walk-on Zack Sampson.
“Furney is having an OK spring,” Ungerer said, adding that he’s looking for more consistency from everyone in the kicking game.
Last season Furney converted 3 of 5 field-goal attempts, with a long of 51 yards against California. He was also perfect on 18 extra points.
But Grasu retained the kickoff role all season, so Furney, Gauper or Sampson will have to fill that hole in the fall.
Forrest, honorable mention All-Pac-10, booted all but one of the Cougars’ 67 punts last season. That other kick? It covered 51 yards against Oklahoma State and came off the foot of Dan Wagner.
Wagner, a redshirt senior from Portland’s Jesuit High, has been an emergency quarterback the past three years, but has worked his way into the role as Forrest’s backup and now his heir-apparent.
Which, considering Forrest is WSU’s all-time leader in punts and punt yardage and second in career average, is sort of the Cougar equivalent of replacing Michael Jordan.
“A little bit,” said Wagner, who hasn’t punted consistently since high school. “I’m starting to hit enough good punts, it’s not ‘nice punt’ every time you hit a good one. It’s starting to get expected like it was for Reid, like it was expected for Michael to make the shots.”
Ungerer doesn’t need Jordan, or Forrest for that matter. He needs the best Wagner can offer on each punt.
“Reid was one of the best punters in the country, so it’s going to look different,” Ungerer said. “The one thing I love about Dan is he works really hard. He’s going to give you everything he’s got and do everything he can to be the best he can.”
If Wagner is untested, then the front-runner to replace Enyeart at long snapper, redshirt junior Zach Koepp, is downright raw.
Koepp spent a year at South Dakota State, where he was a one-handed backup snapper, before dropping out of school to learn the family business.
But last year he decided he still had the football bug, spent some time with long-snapping guru Chris Rubio learning the right way to long snap and then looked for a place to play.
Rubio, who knows Ungerer well, put Koepp in touch with WSU. And the Cougars had something Koepp was looking for.
“Zach was the reason I came here,” Koepp said of Enyeart. “I had my options fully open, from about five different schools. I wanted to go where the best senior snapper was. That was here.”
Enyeart helped him refine his craft … and gave him an appreciation for avocados.
“He was a godsend for a mentor,” Koepp said. “I can’t express enough in words how he took me under his wing. Not a day goes by I don’t talk to him.
“He saw that ambition in me that he had, so he wanted to make sure he left the job to someone who was ready.”
And knew the value of fruit.
“That’s one thing Zach and I worked on a lot (was) the psychological aspect of things,” Koepp said. “When I go out on the field, I’m not thinking I’m snapping on the hip. I’m thinking of avocados, I’m thinking of what I’m going to do later, something like that.
“I think I do a good job of putting myself in a (relaxed) state so that I won’t be throwing an errant snap because I’m scared.”