PULLMAN – There is no debate.
The area graduation hit Washington State the hardest?
The Cougars’ special teams.
Punter Reid Forrest, third in the Pac-10 and seventh in the nation at 45.42 yards per punt, shuffled off to Buffalo where he’s trying to make the Bills.
Four-year long snapper Zach Enyeart, left to become a YouTube star – just search for his trick shot video – and an NFL hopeful.
Kicker Nico Grasu, who handled the kickoff chores all season and the early season place kicks, gone.
The three seniors gave the WSU special teams consistent performances for years. And Grasu will always be remembered as an Apple Cup hero.
But that was then. This season Washington State has to move on. And that process has begun.
“The operation, the smoothness, the timing, we’re still working out those kinks,” said Dave Ungerer, in his second season as WSU’s special teams coordinator. “But I think, for this time of year, our operation times are still pretty good.”
The transition process actually began last season, when then-freshman Andrew Furney took over the place-kicking duties from Grasu down the stretch. For the season, Furney was 3 of 5 on field goals, including a 51-yarder against Cal.
It’s Furney’s job from the start now, and has been better than 75 percent on his live practice attempts.
The snaps have improved as the practices have worn on as redshirt junior Zach Koepp has become more and more comfortable with the role.
Koepp transferred to WSU last fall and spent his redshirt season learning from Enyeart. Now the place-kicking and punt snaps are in his hands.
In last year’s games, those long snaps – whether for punts or placekicks – headed back to Forrest, who doubled as the holder. This year both those spots belong to Dan Wagner, a fifth year senior who came to WSU as a quarterback – he appeared in two games at that position, both times filling in after injuries – but transitioned full-time to punter this season.
“Wags is doing a pretty good job,” Ungerer said, “We’ve just got to get, along with the snappers, just a little bit more consistent.”
“Overall, the transition is going well,” Wagner said of the new special team members. “We’ve still got two weeks left and we need to keep grinding, keep working.”
Though Wagner has been punting in practice since his freshman year, he’s had just two punts in games. His one chance last year, when Forrest was sidelined with an injury, resulted in a 51-yarder against Arizona.
“I miss that competitive fire, those kind of nerves before the game,” Wagner said. “That’s the part that makes it fun. I’m excited to get out there and, hopefully, thrive in those situations.”
Ungerer believes the WSU special teams should be better overall this season because the depth has improved in the program. With more depth, there are more athletic guys to bolster the special teams.
Early in Paul Wulff tenure as WSU’s coach, the Cougars were forced to use starters in multiple roles on special teams. That’s not happening as much anymore.
“Last year we did better, meaning we found some guys and the starter reps were lower,” he said. “This year we have even more guys to choose from.”
Still, Ungerer wishes some starters were still his to use.
“Deone Bucannon was one of the best kids I’ve ever had,” Ungerer said smiling, thinking about early last year when Bucannon was a special teams stalwart.
Bucannon was so good, in fact, Ungerer compares him to Rashad Johnson, who Ungerer coached on special teams early in his tenure at Alabama and now a defensive back with Arizona Cardinals.
“Deone is just as good or better than Rashad was. And he was special teams player of the year in the SEC.”
The returners will be starters or key reserves, with receiver Isiah Barton reprising his role as the No. 1 kickoff returner – he averaged 22.1 yards on 28 returns in 2010 – and freshman receiver Henry Eaddy and redshirt freshman running back Rickey Galvin in the punt return and kickoff return mix.