Because it's tough to come up with a lot of content that's not covered elsewhere until the Cougs actually play a game, Grady and I decided we would tackle one burning question surrounding the team each day until kickoff on Saturday.
On to part two of our series! (You can find part one here.)
What player, other than Gary Rogers, is most key to the Cougs' offensive success this year?
Grady: At the risk of choosing the obvious answer, I have to go with Brandon Gibson. The reason being that Gibson, as the most talented player on the offensive side of the ball, has to have a big season to take the focus off of the rest of the offense. He is the one player that can truly make everyone else on offense better. Averaging 17.6 yards per catch last season, he's a big play threat that can force defenses to play back from the line of scrimmage and take pressure off of the O-line. That's good for the running game, and good for Gary Rogers in terms of pass protection. Gibson also gives Rogers a security blanket to throw to in his first year as a starting QB.
Losing Jeshua Anderson was a big hit to the passing game in terms of depth. Now it becomes even more important for Gibson to get the ball in his hands, so that the opposition doesn't try to force Rogers to throw to our more inexperienced wideouts. He'll have help from Willis and Karstetter, among others, but we just don't know how much. Still, no player has an impact on this offense like Gibson - he set the single season receiving record last year with 1,180 yards and was eighth in the Pac-10 in all-purpose yards. If he can make it two straight years on the all-Pac-10 first team, the Cougar offense will be in business.
[Side note: I really can't express in words how incompetent EA Sports was in rating Brandon Gibson for NCAA Football 2009. It's disgraceful; if he played for USC they'd have him at 98.]
Whenever you can bring back a player who had NFL draft thoughts the previous season, that's a good thing. Now Gibson needs to prove he belongs in the draft by having another exceptional conference season. He has to keep finding the endzone and it's imperative that he try to improve on his 9 TDs from last season. Wulff runs a fast, high-powered offense that can be demanding on its receivers. Gibson has to learn to deal with double-teams (something he didn't see a lot of last season), focus on securing the football, and finding ways to get more YAC. Not everyone is going to let Brandon run free in the secondary like the Huskies did on the last offensive play of 2007. He has to rise up and meet the challenge.
Nuss: My instincts also drew me towards the wide receivers – although I ended up with a completely different conclusion. I think the key is the other wide receivers.
I realize it's a little bit of a cop out to not just pick one guy, since that's what the question asks for, but I really think their ability to do some things is going to dictate what Gibson is able to do. If a defense wants to shut down one receiver bad enough, it's not that tough to do – think Steve Smith against the Hawks in that '05 NFC Championship game. If teams are determined to take Gibson out of the game, they're by and large going to be able to. What they won't do is do that at the expense of giving up giant chunks of yards to other guys.
That's where they come in. They're going to have to be able to get open running the crisp, clean routes a spread offense needs to be efficient. Karstetter, Willis, Blackledge, Norrell ... there's a whole lot of inexperience out there opposite Gibson until Jeshua Anderson comes back. Teams are going to single up those guys and triple up Gibson until somebody makes them pay. That's definitely what I'll be looking for on Saturday.
A close second in my book, though, is Dwight Tardy. I mean, after all the consternation over the running game heading into last season, there's hardly anyone talking about this guy who, by the way, is coming off major knee surgery. He was downright explosive last year at times, and if he can duplicate that this year, that will be a huge boost. But, that's a ginormous if.
Grady: One more thing regarding the passing game – we both left out Frischknecht at tight end, who could really emerge as a star catching the ball over the middle. He was one of the most pleasant surprises for WSU last season after Jed Collins went down.
Nuss: You're right about that. However, tight ends didn't play much of a role in Wulff's passing game last year. The top tight end had just 12 catches, although they did go for 217 yards – a whopping 17.9 yards per catch. There were two other tight ends to see significant time, combining for 19 catches ant 138 yards. So, if you're keeping score, that's 31 catches and 355 yards for tight ends. Compare that to 185 receptions and 2,648 yards for the top three wide receivers.
Is there a chance Frischknecht is a better athlete than the three guys Wulff had up in Cheney? I'd bet on it. But I don't know if that translates into an increased role in his Pullman offense – especially when I think we all think he's a nice tight end, but not a game breaker.
Grady: Now that's some killer analysis.
Funny how OK State coach Mike Gundy says he has "no idea" what the Cougs will throw at them, even though Wulff just coached last year at EWU, and had a widely televised playoff game on an ESPN network against Appalachian State. Don't be surprised if Gundy gives you a call in the next 48 hours for help deciphering a Paul Wulff offense.