Five keys to a winning season
After five wins in the three years Paul Wulff has been in Pullman, can the Washington State Cougars win at least that many in his fourth? For the Cougars to post their first winning record since 2003, these five things have to occur.
1. The offensive line must stay healthy
The one figure that must make Wulff’s blood boil is 147. That’s the number of sacks WSU has given up in his three years, by far the most in the nation and enough to give the former center nightmares. But after three years of injuries and inexperience, it looks as if the O-line, with four senior starters and a sophomore with unlimited potential, could be a strength. But only if the five starters can play together. The backups are, in most cases, untested underclassmen, transfers or players converted from other positions. Not a formula that leads to success.
2. The corners need to buckle down
In spring football, Aire Justin emerged as quite possibly WSU’s best cover corner. But a failed PED test cost him his last collegiate season, leaving the Cougars that much thinner outside. Sophomore Nolan Washington was solid last year on one side and Damante Horton showed flashes in his freshman season. But he and junior Daniel Simmons fought injuries – Simmons missed spring – and, with Washington, are the only three players on the depth chart with college experience. The three have potential to be lockdown corners. If they reach it, the defense will take big strides.
3. Jeff Tuel and the 3,000-yard season
Six times WSU quarterbacks have thrown for 3,000 yards in a season. In five of those WSU won nine or more games. Tuel came close to the mark last year, completing nearly 60 percent of his passes en route to 2,780 yards. With a varied and deep corps of receivers, Tuel has a shot to join the exclusive 3,000-yard club, possibly even joining Ryan Leaf (3,968 in 1997) and Alex Brink (3,818 in 2007, a 5-7 year) as the only two to get more than 3,500. All those yards will be needed if it turns out WSU’s best shot at winning is in shootouts.
4. C.J. Mizell needs to step up
Though first-year linebackers coach Chris Tormey feels his group will be fine with solid senior Mike Ledgerwood manning the middle, it became obvious last season the Cougars were stouter with the faster, more explosive Mizell inside. And that will only happen if Mizell practices to his potential, something that was lacking during his freshman season. All reports are Mizell’s work ethic was exemplary in the summer. If he plays – and practices – with passion, the Cougars will improve on last season’s woeful 220 rushing yards a game given up.
5. Dan Wagner has to put his best foot forward
The graduated Reid Forrest may not have been the best punter in the nation last season, but he may have been the best player WSU had at any position. His mostly high, booming punts flipped the field more than once, pinned the opposition inside the 20 on 19 occasions and gave the punt coverage team a chance to excel. Wagner, a former walk-on quarterback from Portland, gets the opportunity to show the time he dedicated last season as Forrest’s understudy was well spent. The defense can use the help.