There were quite a few pressing questions heading in to Spring football this year at WSU. The practice sessions are a time for position battles and gauging the progress of the team, bearing in mind that they are simply WSU vs WSU in a controlled environment. Nobody is going to be able to tell if their team are world beaters or toilet bowlers simply from the 15 allotted practices. However, as fans it gives us the opportunity to have some hope for the future.
On both sides of the ball, some questions were answered and some moved towards having an answer. At the same time, more questions came up, as with any Spring practice session. There were positives and negatives, but overall it was successful. Of the month or so of practices, nobody was seriously injured. If you remember, the biggest goal of the Spring is to survive without injury and the Cougs did just that.
Who will be under center for the Oklahoma State game?
This question had an incredibly obvious answer. Though Paul Wulff played coy, everyone who has seen the Coug's quarterbacks knew it would be Jeff Tuel. The competition played out over Spring and following the Crimson and Gray game, Wulff finally acknowledged the inevitable. Tuel is the starter and will be the starter going into the fall camp and, presumably, the first game. Tuel looks bigger and stronger this Spring and runs the offense much better than Marshall Lobbestael. He makes his reads, can make all the throws, and is a mobile quarterback. Given some protection and the right weapons around him, he could have a very good year.
How will the offensive line perform under Steve Morton?
The jury is still out on this one. Given the injuries to Andrew Roxas and Zack Williams, along with others on the line missing time, we just don't know how we'll they know the system. Remember, implementing a new blocking scheme with a line that was easily the worst in the Pac-10 is no small process. Having time to gel and take in the nuances of the system over the fifteen practices was key. Almost all of the key starters missed time at one point or another, leaving a giant question mark about the line. They held up fine during the Spring game, not surrendering a sack, but it was against a second team defensive line that wouldn't pass for Pac-10 caliber on most days of the week. Having everyone healthy going in to the Fall would go a long way to making the line serviceable.
Adding Quayshawne Buckley (cross your fingers) would also add depth to a line that has some serious depth questions Turns out Buckley is more of a defensive tackle. Whoopsie.
Which of the skill position players will step up to the challenge?
This one also wasn't really answered. With all of the running backs missing time and the Daniel Blackledge case of the dropsies spreading to the receiving corps, nobody really established themselves. The one name that did keep showing up, though, was Chantz Staden. He played well in practice, when healthy, and performed the best during the Spring game. If Staden, James Montgomery, and one of the others from the heap of backs can shoulder the load it would go a long way towards getting the offense in gear. On the outside, Gino Simone should be the steady receiver and has a good rapport developed with Tuel. Jared Karstetter is still the clear starter at the 'Z' receiver spot and provides a good amount of size on the outside. After that, Jeffrey Solomon, Blackledge, and some combination of the incoming group need to get their act together and make some plays. We're also still missing that stretch the field speed, with the hope being that one of the new guys brings it. Tuel and the receiving corps have some work to do as a unit to make the passing game work.
Is the offense going to stick to the no-huddle game plan?
Yes, yes they are. They never huddled during the Spring game and I don't expect them to during the season. Wulff's no-huddle offense isn't meant to be incredibly fast paced, however, but it is meant to force the defense to line up and make checks based on that. We will see the offense get in to formation, perhaps fake a snap, and then adjust based on calls from the sideline. Given the time most of the players have now spent in the system, the hope is that it will run more smoothly.
Can the defensive line generate pressure?
The starters on the line can. A line of Travis Long, Brandon Rankin, Bernard Wolfgramm (hope he makes grades), and Kevin Kooyman can work. All of these guys can plug holes and generate pressure. Where the Cougs have a problem is if any of these guys go down with injuries. Beyond that, there's a few players that can fill in, but the talent dropoff is very apparent.
How will Sekope Kaufusi be used?
Kaufusi may be the most interesting prospect this year due to the versatility he adds. He's quick enough to play a linebacker, but big enough to play the end. I will tell you that seeing him play, and how he was used, made it apparent what his role is. If you know Pete Carrol's system, Kaufusi is an "elephant" back. For those that know football terminology, he's an over/under back. What we have with him is a rush end that can also drop in to coverage. He will probably never leave a two point stance pre-snap, which makes him very versatile. He will, however, line up where an end typically would be. The defense should be able to show quite a few different looks this year. If you were tired of us sitting in a base defense, good news!
Who will be starting in the defensive backfield?
Right now, the defensive backfield is wide open. This isn't a bad thing at all, however. What we have is a talented group of players all fighting for the same four spots. What is means is that the losers of the position battle with not only add depth, but also fill in quite well in nickle (4 DB) and dime (5 DB) packages. Much maligned Aire Justin played quite nicely at one cornerback spot, even having the play of the game in the final scrimmage. Daniel Simmons and Nolan Washington are also in the mix in the secondary. At the safety spot, Chima Nwachukwu returns but has been pushed by newcomers Jamal Atofau and Casey Locker. LeAndre Daniels, at the free safety spot, passes the eye test and has the potential to be a big hitter and playmaker. The backfield is stacked and that's more than a good thing going forward.
With most of the starting linebackers hurt, who took advantage?
Hallston Higgins, Andre Barrington (on the second team), and Arthur Burns did. With injuries to Alex Hoffman-Ellis and Louis Bland still recovering, the younger linebackers had a chance to shine. Burns, Barrington, and Hoffman-Ellis can be a heck of a speed package at linebacker. The beauty of this position for the Cougs is that they have quite a bit of speed and more than enough depth. Adding Hoffman-Ellis and Bland back to the mix, if fully healthy, could make this unit the biggest strength on the defensive side of the ball. We've got guys with strength (Darren Markle included), guys with speed, and quite a bit of versatility.
How awesome is Reid Forrest?
He's awesome. He's very, very awesome. He's also looking bigger this year, giving me hope that we will see some Kyle Basler type hits from the punter extraordinaire. I saw a Heisman watch list the other day and he was on it. OK, I made that last part up.
Overall, will there be improvement?
My gut tells me that the defense will be able to hold their own. It also tells me the offense may be hit or miss. If the offense isn't firing and can't stay on the field, it's going to make the defense's job that much harder. The Cougs may hold their opponents to lower scores on the strength of the defense, but if the offense can't put up points, it's all for naught.
Where do we go from here?
Going in to the Fall, the Cougs need to continue to build up strength and learn the playbook. Tuel and his receivers, the few that he has, will continue to develop together and hopefully get the timing down, becoming more sure handed in the process. The influx of freshman during the Summer will also help add the the depth of the team, and some of them will need to step in right away. We won't know how good, or perhaps not good, this team is until it plays a real game, but they are continuing to progress. This is a time to be excited for the season and to hope for the best.