Part six in an eight-part series previewing the WSU football 2010 offensive and defensive units.
Heisman candidate Reid Forrest leads the group, returning for his final season as a Coug (if you need a tissue, I understand). He has the punting/running back/awesomeness position locked down and no one is taking it from him.
Last season was a pretty so-so year for Nico Grasu. He was decently accurate on field goals, but lacked the leg to give Wulff the confidence to give him many shots outside of forty yards. He is seeing some stiff competition from freshman Andrew Furney, but Furney is not really outperforming him. Grasu will likely be the starter come September 4th.
Aside from the kicking game, 2009 was another nightmare year for Washington State's Special Teams. The kickoff return team averaged just 18.54 yards an attempt while the coverage yielded 27.72 yards an attempt. That's essentially giving up an extra first down in fielding position every time (Luckily the Cougs didn't have to worry about "kicking it off" much last year). The coverage team also allowed two returns for touchdowns on kickoffs and another two on punts. That would be only one less touchdown than the offensive unit rushed for. If the Cougs want to be competitive this year, kickoffs have to improve on both ends.
Luckily, there is reason to believe that improvement will happen. For the first time in his tenure, Paul Wulff may have enough talented depth to field a solid special teams unit. In the past we've seen tired starters and guys who should never see the field out there trying to stop World Class athletes from advancing the ball. Hopefully the starters can stay on the sideline and we see some of the talented youth on this team make some plays.
Some of you may scoff at the idea of using freshman on kickoffs and punts. I understand how you feel. Using a guy for only special teams seems like a waste of eligibility and does little to put separation between the classes. To those of you, I offer two nuggets for thought:
1) We don't want to use starters on special teams anymore. The wear and tear it causes has been clear the last few seasons, and not just in injuries. These guys (who are mostly on the defensive end) are dead tired by the end of the game as it is. Running a bunch of extra 40+ yard sprints and enduring a few high-velocity collisions doesn't help any. Having guys that exhausted makes them ineffective anywhere you put them. So if we aren't using the starters, we have to use the backups, right? Well, there are a few positions in the defensive backfield where the 3rd string guys are true freshman. If you want to use the backups, using freshman may be your only option.
2) Special Teams are often undervalued. Think about the Cougs' last two season openers, against Oklahoma State in 2008 and Stanford in 2009. The games were almost identical in that the Cougs scored a second-half TD to keep relatively close, only to have it immediately undone by a return TD. If there are freshman that are fast enough and good enough to play on special teams right away, and it prevents things like that from happening, I'm all for it.
In the end, there should be only a few guys out there who are true freshman, so it is not like Wulff will blow the whole class on Special Teams, but at least he has some talented options. What is the point of having depth if you aren't going to use it?
Click the jump for more specialness.
Projected Depth Chart for Sept. 4
Punter: Reid Forrest
Kicker: Nico Grasu, Andrew Furney
Kick Returners: Chantz Staden, Carl Winston, Rickey Galvin
Punt Returners: Nolan Washington, Rickey Galvin, Chantz Staden
Have to go with Nico Grasu or whoever is the starting kicker here. If the kicker can bury the ball deep on kickoffs and be consistent in the placekicking game, that can change a near-miss to an upset win.
Biggest Question Mark
Can we keep the other teams out of the endzone or on their own half of the field? This has been an absolute killer the last few years. This team needs to improve enough to limit big plays on special teams, or winning will become a much higher improbability.
Worst Case Scenario
Kickoffs are awful once again. The coverage team gives up several touchdowns and long returns, including one that prevents a potential Pac-10 upset. Nico Grasu is erratic. Furney is called on to replace him and misses a last-second field goal against the Huskies that would have won the game, but the Cougs instead lose by 2.
Reid Forrest finishes second in the Heisman voting to Jake Locker.
Best Case Scenario
The coverage teams don't yield an entire touchdown all year. Opposing teams' average starting fielding position is inside the 30, the Cougs is around the 25.
Grasu is improved thanks to the competition and makes all his extra points while hitting 75% of his field goals. He knocks home yet another game winning field goal in the Apple Cup, putting WSU up 3-0 in the first quarter of a 17-0 snowy shutout of the Huskies.
Reid Forrest wins the Heisman by unanimous vote.
Coverage is markedly improved, but there are still a few special teams blunders that lead to points. The return team gets it's average over 20 yards.
Grasu provides some scary moments, missing a few chip shots, but is not bad enough to bench.
Reid Forrest wins the Heisman, but other people get votes too.