A rebuilding process is rarely smooth, with ups, downs, leaps forward and steps backward dotting the landscape along the way. And there are moments that test the philosophy of the program and the process in place.These moments serve as checkpoints, in a way, and can be turning points for the team and coaching staff.
Many expected 2010 to be the year WSU finally turned the corner. It was the third year of the rebuilding process and the fanbase was hungry for results. But for this exercise, the results on the field are irrelevant. We're purposely ignoring them, despite the Cougars showing some signs of life along the way.
But looking back 2010 had the feel of a turning point, at least in the sense of the rebuilding process. After torching the program, Paul Wulff had a roster of mostly his guys, and had laid the foundation of the program he envisioned. But it was a trying year as the coaching staff faced challenges off the field and decisions that could define the plan they put in place.
On February 3, 2010, Paul Wulff inked his third recruiting class as the head coach of the Cougars. Heading into signing day, we had a general idea of what to expect from the class, with a fair amount of early commitments and few "on the fence" guys. But the Washington State coaching staff had a secret commitment, which was revealed as the letters came rolling in.
C.J. Mizell was ready to attend Florida State out of high school, but a chain of events left him sitting out a year, away from football and college. The staff at Washington State found him, convinced him to visit Pullman and, eventually, signed him. Mizell was the first big reclamation project the coaching staff chose to undertake, and his presence would test the foundation of the program along the way.
Mizell's physical talents were clear from the start, but something was off. Despite clearly possessing more talent than those above him on the depth chart, the one-time Florida State commit failed to rise to the top. He struggled with the playbook, with grasping the concepts of the defense and, as we found out later, with putting in the necessary work off the field.
At this point, with the defense struggling early in the season and the fanbase growing even more restless, it would've been easy to throw everything out and hand Mizell a starting role. Doing so wouldn't have fixed all of the Cougars' obvious flaws, but it would have provided a significant talent boost, perhaps giving the Washington State defense a shot in the arm.
Instead, the coaching staff continued to dangle a carrot in front of Mizell while putting in even more work to change and mold him. The message was that nobody is bigger than the program, and each player is just one of the 11, a catchphrase used often within the program.
There came a point when everything could've slid off the rails during the 2010 season. Yes, the team continued to lose and the fans continued to wring there hands, but Wulff and his staff faced a bigger challenge. As they worked to mold Mizell and fix the on-field deficiencies of the team, a fire broke out within the program. Two players -- Jamal Atofau and Andre Barrington -- were arrested as part of a drug raid.
The off-field problems were back and the program was in the midst of trying times -- the types of times that test a program, its philosophies and the direction of the clean-up effort. And yet, Washington State came out on the other side alive, with only superficial wounds to show for it.
Mizell came incredibly close to throwing everything away multiple times during his freshman year. As he entered spring practice in early 2011, he found himself falling down the depth chart. Everything finally came to a head as the spring practice period came to a close and the coaches told Mizell it was time to make a decision.
"We pulled him in after spring ball and told him, 'You're either gonna be a part of it or we're gonna move on without you,'" Ball said following the Cougars win over UNLV. "You give him the credit for making that decision and being a leader. He's excited to be there, he likes practice, he's fun to be around, he's fun to coach and he's a really good football player."
I haven't been able to shake the idea that Mizell was a test and a turning point. The 2010 recruiting class was supposed to be a big piece in the rebuilding effort, and Mizell was a project the coaching staff took on. His talent was undeniable and made him irresistible, but there were plenty of red flags to go with his physical abilities. And yet, he was treated like everyone else, forced to fit in or ship out.
Since Mizell was presented with an ultimatum, he's thrived. The difference in his practice habits, film study and demeanor has been night and day. The fact he was named a captain this past week, a reward for the work he's done off the field, is a testament to both him and the program -- the former more so than the latter. He was challenged by a coaching staff that refused to waiver in its convictions, and rose to meet the expectations.
In a way, we may look back on 2010 as the year something did change within the program. Simply facilitating the turnaround we've seen with Mizell is not, by itself, the end all, be all. But it is a sign of something bigger going on within the program, and the collective buy-in its players have made.
This is the third part in a series about the rebuilding process at Washington State. The first part, on Paul Wullf cleaning house, can be found here and the second part, on the foundation of the program, can be found here. Next, we end the series with a question.