PULLMAN – When coach Paul Wulff called his team together to end practice at around 11:30 Saturday morning, it marked the finish of Washington State’s 2011 preseason football camp.
Next time the Cougars get together on the practice field it will be game week, with the season opener vs. Idaho State looming on Saturday.
But before the move is made to game mode, it’s time to look back at Wulff’s fourth camp as WSU coach and take a quick peak at the season ahead. And, of course, we can’t mark the transition without handing out a few awards.
Most Valuable Player: The key to WSU’s offense is quarterback Jeff Tuel. He may be underrated outside Pullman – there are six returning Pac-12 quarterbacks who threw for more the 2,400 yards last year and five of them are on the Davey O’Brien Award watch list as the nation’s best QB; you know which one isn’t – but he’s appreciated by his fellow Cougars.
“I would take Jeff Tuel over anybody right now,” Wulff said recently. “We’re biased. He’s our guy. We want him to be the best. And I think he wants to be the best.”
Tuel enters his third year as starter having thrown for 3,569 yards and 24 touchdowns in his 18 games. That compares favorably with the statistics Drew Bledsoe (4,127, 26) and Ryan Leaf (3,465, 25) posted in their first two seasons in Pullman.
Impact Freshman: There are a few redshirt freshmen who will make a difference (see Key Offensive Player below), but the guy who has the chance to make the biggest impact is defensive tackle Toni Pole.
And it’s not just because he’s 6-foot-1, 292 pounds and quick enough to play end if needed.
The Cougars need to be stronger in the middle and Pole is just that, strong. He was ticketed to play often last season, his first after coming out of Union City, Calif., but injuries derailed that plan and forced him to watch.
At times in camp Pole was nearly unblockable, getting off the ball with unusual quickness for a player his size. Plus he has the strength to bull-rush an opposing guard if needed.
Most Improved Player: The most crucial guy on the offensive line is the left tackle, the protector of Tuel’s blind side. This camp Tuel hasn’t had to worry. David Gonzales has his back.
The 6-6, 286-pound senior, a transfer from Fresno City College last season, has been near perfect, not only in team drills, but even in one-on-one drills with Travis Long, the Cougars’ best defensive lineman.
“He’s got a lot of the great qualities you want,” Wulff said. “He’s a very even-demeanored guy. He’s flexible, he could play any position on the line. He plays with good pad leverage, he got a good football IQ.
“Here’s a guy who is still 20 years old and he’s a senior, so he’s nowhere near where he can be from a weight-room perspective. His upside is really big.”
Gonzales started the first seven games last season before breaking his left arm against Arizona. He’s healthy now, with only the 10-inch surgical scar serving as a reminder. And he’s stronger. Stronger and quicker.
“You have to have the want and desire to make yourself better,” Gonzales said. “Working 110 percent everyday in the off-season to increase my weight, because I was underweight last year, and to recover from a broken arm, you’ve just got to be able to dedicate yourself to your training.”
Biggest Question Mark: That has to be the status of Brandon Rankin. The senior defensive tackle came into Pullman last year from junior college weighed down by expectations.
But with those expectations long forgotten, he’s been a beast at times in camp. With Pole, Anthony Laurenzi (6-3, 287), Justin Clayton (6-4, 282) and Rankin, the Cougars have the rotation coaches dream of inside.
There is only one problem. The 6-5, 286-pound Rankin is currently ineligible for game action, after failing to meet ongoing NCAA eligibility requirements.
Sources close to the situation said WSU asked the NCAA for a waiver, citing Rankin’s documented individual academic needs. The process is still ongoing, but the NCAA did ask for more information early this week and WSU supplied it.
An answer is expected next week, and the Cougars feel there is still a good chance it will be favorable, but one never knows when dealing with the NCAA.
Rankin has been and can continue to practice, so if the ruling is in his favor, he can play immediately.
Biggest Surprise: This one is simple. When practice started everyone knew WSU was looking for a defensive end to play opposite Long. No one thought the answer would be redshirt junior Adam Coerper.
“Adam’s been physical and gives us a really good run presence,” Wulff said.
Injuries thrust a stake in the 6-5, 252-pound Coerper’s first three years but he came into this season healthy.
“I just felt this was my year,” he said. “I’ve been injured in the past and haven’t really been playing at all. Health is the No. 1 difference right now.”
He also came into the season with something to prove, a fact he acknowledges readily.
“I kind of came out of the woodwork,” he said. “I haven’t done much the past three years, I haven’t really participated that much, but this year is my year.”
Biggest Game: After opening against Idaho State, ranked 207th in Jeff Sagarin’s rating system, the Cougars host UNLV, ranked 113th. Then they travel to San Diego State, 9-4 a year ago and ranked 76th, 18 spots higher than WSU.
Assuming Washington State starts 2-0, the Aztecs are the first chance for a real upset and, more importantly, would give the Cougars a chance for a perfect nonconference slate. Plus, a win would do wonders for their confidence heading into the Pac-12 opener at Colorado two weeks later.
Key Offensive Player: Everyone knows the big-play capability of Tuel and his receivers, mainly sophomore Marquess Wilson and senior Jared Karstetter. But for the Cougars to really put points on the board, they need to slice up defenses occasionally with the run.
And no one has more potential to cut a defense deep than Rickey Galvin. The 5-8, 171-pound redshirt freshman broke his arm on his lone 2010 carry but he’s healthy now and showed in camp he can still make defenders miss.
Key Defensive Player: When C.J. Mizell came to play last season, he made a difference (see: Oregon State). But he had well-documented problems with his practice ethic. Those have subsided and he’s won the middle linebacker spot.
When he’s throwing around his 6-2, 227-pound body with abandon, Mizell can be disruptive to a running game. If he does that on a consistent basis this year, the Cougars run defense will improve.