Welcome to the first of CougCenter's unit previews for the upcoming season! Over the next couple of weeks, you'll see us take a deeper look into each of the seven groups of players that hold the keys to WSU's potential success this season.
First up: The big fellas up front -- on the offensive side.
They say that success in football starts up front, so perhaps no unit was the posterchild of WSU problems in 2008 than the offensive line. Seven -- SEVEN! -- different combinations started for the Cougs in 13 games, and only three times did the same unit start back-to-back games. Only two guys -- Kenny Alfred and Micah Hannam -- started every game, and even both of those guys were banged up all year to the extent that each needed surgery in the offseason.
And there was the crux of the issue. The offensive line was never really given any chance to succeed because of injuries up and down the line starting in August and never really stopping throughout the season. The result (predictably) was a unit that looked completely discombobulated for the majority of the season, repeatedly failing to open any kind of hole for the running attack and occasionally allowing defensive players free shots at decapitating their quarterbacks. The line was, in a word ... miserable.
But this year represents new hope. Besides having virtually every player return, save for mountainous left tackle Vaughn Lesuma, the boys look stronger, fitter, and more prepared to deal with the rigors of the Pac-10 after an intense offseason with strength and conditioning coach Darin Lovat. While the strength gains can be seen across the entire roster, perhaps nowhere will it benefit the Cougars more than on their lines. That, combined with the possibility of continuity that just wasn't there in 2008, represent real hope that this unit can improve exponentially from the disaster of a year ago and lead the turnaround charge.
|Pos.||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|LT||Steven Ayers (6-4, 315, #So.)||Tyson Pencer (6-6, 297, #Fr.)||Alex Reitnouer (6-5, 240, Fr.)|
|LG||Zack Williams (6-4, 293, #Jr.)||Brian Danaher (6-3, 284, #Jr.)||Tim Hodgdon (6-3, 285, Fr.)|
|C||Kenny Alfred (6-2, 300, #Sr.)||Andrew Roxas (6-1, 306, Jr.)||Chris Prummer (6-1, 269, #So.)|
|RG||B.J. Guerra (6-3, 311, #So.)||Brian Danaher (6-3, 284, #Jr.)||Kevin Freitag (6-3, 301, #So.)|
|RT||Micah Hannam (6-4, 284, #Jr.) OR||Joe Eppele (6-8, 306, #Jr.)||Reed Lesuma (6-4, 311, #Sr.)|
It's tough to pick one guy as the key to this unit -- after all, cohesion is so important -- but if we've got to pick one, it's got to be Alfred. He's one of the precious few legitimate NFL prospects on this roster, and as the center he is essentially the quarterback of the offensive line. Yes, he started every game last year, but he was hardly the Alfred we grew to love from the moment he stepped into the lineup as a redshirt freshman three years ago. An effective Alfred, fully recovered from offseason surgery and playing at his peak, is a rock in the middle of this line that the rest of the guys can build from.
Biggest Question Mark
This one is easy: Can they stay healthy enough for the five best players to see enough snaps together to be able to compete in the Pac-10 slate? The great offensive lines in the history of WSU football seemed to be those that were greater than the sum of their parts, and this is one of those units that seems to fit that mold. They need to be on the same page from day one and put all that "learning" they did last year to good use immediately, and the only way that's going to happen is if the vast majority of them can stay healthy through camp. After all, there is no soft landing for these guys in the first week of the season, so they've got to be ready to do some damage immediately. So far, so good, as there have been no reports of significant injuries five days into camp.
Best Case Scenario
Their newfound strength really does make a huge difference, and the guys make it out of camp with just the normal nicks and bruises. Five guys elevate their play to stand out among the rest, flashing a chemistry that Paul Wulff could only have hoped for. Once the season starts, the linemen discover that the strength gains not only help with durability, but with their physicality in the trenches as well. The Cougs' stable of talented running backs find lanes that only appeared for moments last year, and WSU becomes this year's Stanford, riding a strong running game to go from laughingstock to up-and-comer in the conference. Additionally, the quarterback that makes it out of camp starts every game, spending more time on his feet than on is back or running for his life, and the passing game is able to emerge as a nice compliment to the rushing attack. The offense becomes middle of the pack in the conference.
Worst Case Scenario
The strength gains look pretty on the practice field, but when the time comes to pop pads with Stanford, they look overmatched once again. Chalking it up to the first game of the year, the unit rebounds a bit against Hawaii and SMU. But it doesn't take long to see that bigger biceps can't mask the fact that a lot of these guys just aren't Pac-10 caliber, and the punishment starts taking its toll. As the Pac-10 season wears on, injuries start creeping in and the lineup shuffle begins. The line deteriorates, the running backs look like they did last year, and Jeff Tuel is starting by the end of the season because Marshall Lobbestael had to have a leg amputated after a compound fracture, Kevin Lopina's head was disassociated from his body and JT Levenseller decided he'd rather quit the team than put himself in that kind of peril.
The strength gains are real, and they result in a tangible difference come September. Nobody's going to confuse these guys with USC or Oregon up front, but they're doing things they weren't doing a year ago. There are still some injuries, sure, but they're a lot fewer and farther in between, and there's enough continuity at the majority of the positions that these guys begin to find their way. The running game is good enough to keep the Cougs in more games than everyone thought by eating clock and keeping the defense on the sidelines, and the best quarterback is able to start 90 percent of the games because he's not getting killed. More than that, there's real hope for 2010, as every guy is scheduled to return except for the graduating Alfred, and if they improve as much from this year to next as they did in the last 12 months, this unit could become a real strength, rather than liability.