Recently, Joey Kaufman over at So-Cal Sports Hub was
crazy nice enough to ask me some pressing questions regarding Cougar Football for 2009. It's a part of their site's "Checkin' on the Pac" series. I thought that for the ease of you, the reader, I would also post the Q&A session here on CougCenter. In it, you'll find my responses to many issues regarding the Crimson and Gray. Paul Wulff's performance, the D-Line, the new and improved Cougar backfield - it's all in there. Even a prediction on our season record. The only thing I'd want a mulligan on, given the recent dismissals, is my optimism about the defensive backfield. Well, that and some bad grammar I didn't clean up. Other than that, my opinion hasn't changed on any of the topics discussed.
Let's get to it!
Q: Last year Kevin Lopina had a nightmare year, throwing 0 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. However, Marshall Lobbestael and JT Levenseller weren’t much better either. Which of the three do you feel will emerge as the team’s starter in 2009?
A: Kevin Lopina is the frontrunner for the start of the season, but it’s not by much. Lobbestael could easily earn the job with a strong showing in fall camp, and Levenseller - while looking from the outside in - still has a shot. And beyond camp, the job is still open if the starter struggles through the first few games. Incoming freshman Jeff Tuel is my pick for QB of the future, but it’s unlikely he’ll see the field in ‘09.
The good news for Cougar fans is that Lopina’s catastrophic numbers from last year are in part the result of back luck. He only played a portion of the blowout win over Portland State, and he did have three rushing touchdowns to his credit last year. It is still incredible, though, that a Washington State starting quarterback could fail to notch a passing touchdown over the course of a season. Part of that is due to Lopina’s knack for throwing interceptions; something he has to shake if he wants to keep his job this fall. I don’t envy the position the quarterback of this team is in, regardless of who it is. This is the weakest receiving crew on paper for quite some time at WSU, and the offensive line is still a work in progress. I just hope all of our QB contenders stay healthy.
Q: Senior Dwight Tardy has show some promise in previous years, but he has been forced to miss some guys due to injury. Is this the year he puts it all together, while teaming up with James Montgomery in the backfield?
A: I think this is the year Tardy puts it together, but the great thing is he doesn’t necessarily have to. With the addition of Montgomery (and the return of Logwone Mitz), Tardy doesn’t have to take as much of a beating as he has in the past, and a running back by committee system is a great fit for WSU right now given the issues up front. Unlike other no-huddle coaches, Paul Wulff doesn’t run a spread offense, and he likes to pound the rock. Tardy and Montgomery could both have breakout years if they put in the work over the summer. This is the best I’ve felt about the Cougar backfield since Jerome Harrison patrolled it.
Q: Historically, Washington State has had some pretty good wide receivers, especially in recent years, in Jason Hill, Michael Bumpus, and. Who stands out among this year’s group?
A: I love Jeshua Anderson. Anderson can’t be matched in terms of speed - he’s the 2008 NCAA champion in the 400m hurdles. Jeshua just missed out on an Olympic appearance, but it’s hard to blame him, as his U.S. teammates went on to sweep the medals in his category in Beijing. In other words, he’s fast. But don’t sleep on Jared Karstetter, the sophomore who caught the most important pass of the year last season: a 48-yarder to set up the game-tying field goal against Washington. Without Gibson at the top, the depth of the unit is compromised, but there’s still some hope.
Q: The number of sacks allowed by WSU’s offensive line increased from 22 in 2007 to 43 in 2008. Now, the Cougars lose their left tackle Vaugh Lesuma. What’s the likelihood of any improvement?
A: Improvement is likely in that it’s hard to imagine the O-line being that bad two years in a row. Lesuma’s massive presence (literally) will be missed, but Kenny Alfred is back and will likely be a candidate for the Rimington Award. If he can anchor the line and the tackles can improve, we might not feel like our quarterbacks have to fear for their safety.
Q: Washington State’s defensive line was the worst in the Pac-10 in many categories last year, rushing yards allowed per game and rushing yards allowed per carry. What needs to be done to reverse this trend?
A: Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. Because of academic issues, JC uber-recruit Brandon Rankin may not be able to go this season. To make matters worse, fellow lineman Cory Mackay suffered serious injuries in a car accident this spring. Right now we’re just hoping for the best for Mackay, regardless of whether or not he plays again.
The outlook on the D line is grim for 2009, and we simply have to hope guys like Toby Turpin and Bernard Wolgramm can develop and give us some depth. However, Kevin Kooyman is still a bright spot at defensive end. Wulff has done a good job of targeting players for the future, and personnel is the only definitive way to solve the issue. I’ll still be holding my breath when the other team hands the ball off.
Q: LB Greg Trent was their best defensive player and team leader a year ago. Now with his departure, who steps up to become the "heart" of the defense?
A: That question assumes we had a defense in 2008, and I’m not so sure we did. Kidding aside, we’ve got some good candidates to step up and lead the D. The aforementioned Kooyman will hopefully be more active getting to the quarterack. Andy Mattingly is switching back to his natural position at linebacker, and he can provide some serious leadership on and off the field. In the defensive backfield, I’m still a Chima Nwachukwu fan. I don’t know if any one person will rise above the rest and lead the defense the way Mkristo Bruce or Greg Trent used to.
In most categories, WSU’s pass defense improved. Do you foresee the trend continuing in 2009?
Not so sure about this one. One disturbing stat is that the passing yards per attempt allowed by Wazzu actually increased last season - from 7.3 yards in 2007 to 7.8 in 2009. Yards per game looked good though, because our rush defense was so horrific that opponents getting seven yards per carry never really felt like putting the ball in the air. Still, if there was a strength to our defense last fall it was the defensive backfield, and I expect similar success in the upcoming year.
Q: There is no doubt that Paul Wulff can coach. He was Big Sky coach of the year three times, while at Eastern Washington. But after a 2-11 mark in year 1, do most Cougar fans feel as if he’s the right coach for this job? If he is, does he turn the program around before Sarkisian turns around UW?
A: I think most Cougar fans are still behind Wulff, but last season was so bad that patience is starting to wear a little thin. I have little doubt he’ll make the Cougars competitive again, but that’s not the issue. The key is whether or not he can make WSU a Rose Bowl contender every four or five years, the same way Mike Price did. That’s a little more difficult.
As for your second question, the good news for fans of the Apple Cup is that I see WSU and UW turning the corner at about the same time. Wulff had a one year head start, but Sarkisian will have a more immediate impact in terms of recruiting. I think both are two to three year processes. I say that with some caution, though, as four years ago fans of both schools were convinced that Bill Doba and Ty Willingham were the right men to lead them to the promised land.
Q: Washington State only has 5 true home games in Pullman this year, as they play two "home" games against Hawaii in Seattle and Notre Dame in San Antonio. What are your thoughts on this type of scheduling, especially the ND game in San Antonio?
A: As a season ticket holder, I’m not very thrilled with the Pullman slate. The San Antonio game is, for all intents and purposes, a home game for Notre Dame. The Seattle matchup against Hawai’i is intriguing, although I would still prefer a major conference opponent in our annual Qwest Field game. Overall that lackluster home schedule is just a result of the Pac-10’s round robin schedule, which I’m starting to lose faith in over time. At least the non-conference schedule provides us with two winnable games (Hawai’i, SMU).
Q: After glancing into your crystal ball, how do you see the 2009 Cougars finishing this year?
A: This is a tough call. I got the feeling that last season’s decision to scrap the no-huddle offense had a lot to do with the fact that we’d go three-and-out so fast that teams like USC could theoretically go 84-7 on us. This team looked just that bad. But then there were signs of life against Arizona, and the improbable (and shockingly exciting) Apple Cup win. If I had to guess… we drop the opener versus Stanford, but rebound with wins over SMU and Hawai’i. Then the Cougs enter a six game stretch with five on the road… That’s where the season unravels, and we lose all six. We then take one of the two remaining home games in an upset (either UCLA or Oregon State), and beat the Dawgs in Montlake, because why not. That makes WSU 4-8 on the year, and that’s a pretty optimistic outlook. If June Jones has our number (coaches at SMU and coached the older players on Hawai’i), we could flirt with 0-12. And if that happens, Paul Wulff will almost certainly be sitting on a burning seat in 2010.