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John Blanchette: Win or lose, time for Tuel

This is probably textbook “gotcha” journalism but, hey, I only know what the local football coach tells me.

And on Thursday from the campus at Washington State University, Paul Wulff applied a basketball analogy meant to illustrate the difficulty of preparing for Saturday’s opponent – Oregon – and then extrapolated it to his football team.

“If you’ve got a good guy running the point, he can make everybody look good,” Wulff said. “If you don’t have somebody (good) running the point, everybody can look bad. That’s why it’s so critical we establish a quarterback.”

Ah, yes. Hence the elevation of callow freshman Jeff Tuel over Marshall Lobbestael and Kevin Lopina on the depth chart and into Saturday’s starting lineup. It’s Wulff searching for a good point guard.

But just a month ago, when Wulff was being pressed to name a starting quarterback as fall drills concluded, he had something quite different to say.

“I know it’s a high-profile position – I understand that,” he said. “But really, to the team’s perspective, we could have a battle at right tackle or at corner that is every bit as important.”

Riiiiiiiiiight.

Wulff is not the first coach to float that particular stinker, but what it lacked in originality it made up for in sheer flapdoodle.

Of course, you could be generous and chalk it up to exasperation – that Wulff was tired of hearing the “Lopina or Lobbestael?” question because he knew the eventual answer was going to be “Tuel.”

In any event, we have at least achieved re-entry into reality. A third of the way through Wazzu’s schedule, Wulff’s first starting lineup of 2009 now has seen different names at no fewer than 10 positions, nine of them because of injuries or defection. The other was quarterback.

So much for those important battles at right tackle and corner.

It’s been a couple of weeks since Wulff first announced that Tuel’s redshirt was being donated to Value Village, yet it’s still the topic of some lively debate out there in Cougworld, possibly because the citizens can’t occupy themselves musing over likely bowl destinations – and it takes their minds off the rising body count.

That Tuel will be the second true freshman to start at quarterback for the Cougars since, well, they started being called true freshmen has led to an inevitable and unfortunate connection to the first – Drew Bledsoe. Tuel, by all accounts, will be a fine quarterback but if a Brad Gossen or an Aaron Garcia was on the roster now as was the case in 1990, we would only know Tuel’s name as a hotshot recruit.

Bledsoe was better than both his rivals then, but burning his redshirt was unnecessary, except to hasten his development with live snaps. It didn’t help the 1990 team whatsoever. When Bledsoe declared for the NFL draft after his junior year, coach Mike Price congratulated himself for getting as much use out of him as possible and, yes, Bledsoe was probably better in 1992 because of his 1990 experience. Those who lamented not having him around to lead the Cougs to another bowl in 1993 may have been indulging in sheer faith. Had Bledsoe redshirted, he still would have been eligible for the draft after the Copper Bowl. Who can know if he would have been more inclined to stick around?

Likewise, fretting over what a redshirted Jeff Tuel might mean to a 2013 Cougars team may be prescient, but in the current context pointless.

Wulff does have a responsibility to think long term, but it doesn’t relieve him of his duty in the present to put the most competitive team possible on the field. His players – all of them – deserve as much; so do the game-goers who are putting their ticket money down now, on top of whatever costs they incur simply getting there.

If Tuel’s play makes the Cougs more competitive, then there’s another happy by-product: hope, something that can be sold to both patrons and recruits. It’s another signal – along with the play of youngsters like Gino Simone, Daniel Simmons and Travis Long – that Wulff and his staff are upgrading talent as fast as they can and that there’s reason to hang tough.

But hope isn’t the strategy here. If Lobbestael or Lopina gave Wazzu its best chance, they should play. But Tuel does.

That may not translate to a single additional victory this season, but you can’t hoist a white flag for your current customers if you want to keep them.

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