Part seven in an eight-part series previewing the WSU football 2010 offensive and defensive units.
Oh, to be a competitive football team again.
As the offseason nears its end, it's only natural to have a feeling that it's been ages since we last saw college football. That's normal. It happens every year during the doldrums that persist between the end of the college basketball (and/or baseball) and college football seasons. We forget what it's like to settle in on a Saturday and watch some good ol' pigskin throwin' on the TV (I'm channeling my inner SEC fan).
What's killing me, though, is that it feels like it's been even longer - eons, it seems - since Cougar football has really meant something to me. And the last time I did was somewhat by accident. For the entire year of 2008, and for 59 minutes of the final game of that campaign, I rarely - if ever - felt nervous about the outcome of a Cougar football game. Then Kevin Lopina found Jared Karstetter streaking down the sideline for a gain that changed the complexion of the Apple Cup and changed my outlook about the Cougs. A loss, after all of that emotion, could have been devastating. The "c" term might have been used. I bit my nails for the final seconds, then throughout both overtimes, and it was euphoria after Nico Grasu split the uprights with the game winner. Although, admittedly, part of that euphoria came from sending our rival to an infamous 0-12 finish. But I digress.
There's a point to my rambling, and it's this: WSU hasn't been putting us on the edge of our seats that last two years because they haven't been competitive. They haven't been competitive because teams have been able to run the ball against them at will throughout the Paul Wulff era. In 2008 the Cougs gave up fifty - fifty! - touchdowns on the ground. Last year they shaved 15 scores off that total, but had one fewer game on the year, and still gave up 5.95 yards per attempt on the ground. If a team can, in theory, need only two plays to get a first down without even putting the ball in the air, you're not doing things right.
That brings me to the defensive line. My belief is that Cougar football's success (or lack thereof) in 2010 hinges on two units: the offensive and defensive lines. If the Cougs can't run, can't protect Jeff Tuel and (perhaps most importantly) can't stop the run, we're in for a trilogy of atrocious college football seasons.
Like most every position last season, the D-line was bit with injuries and ineffectiveness. The most notable of the former belonged to senior Kevin Kooyman. Thanks to the NCAA making a rare decision that actually benefits a student athlete, he's returning for 2010 and his final year of eligibility. His injury set the tone, however, for the unit's downfall last fall. Travis Long showed flashes of greatness, but he was young. Bernard Wolfgramm is finally healthy in 2010 (KNOCK ON WOOD KNOCK ON WOOD KNOCK ON WOOD). The middle of the line? The middle of the line was just plain bad last season.
So, who are these young men charged with being the first line of defense against our team sucking?
Projected Depth Chart for Sept. 4
|Kevin Kooyman (Sr.*)
|Bernard Wolfgramm (Sr.*)
|Brandon Rankin (Jr.*)
|Travis Long (So.)
|Casey Hamlett (Sr.)
|Anthony Laurenzi (So.*)
|Steven Hoffart (So.*
|Sekope Kaufusi (Fr.*)
|Jordan Pu'u Robinson (Fr.*)
|Justin Clayton (Fr.*)
|Dan Spitz (So.*)
|Adam Coerper (So.*)
More after the jump, including some surprising positivity!
Brandon Rankin - I know, easy choice, but it's true. Wolfgramm and Rankin could make a formidable tandem at the left and right tackle position. If the Cougs can plug up the middle and even get a few sacks along the way, they are going to go a long way to prevent those 49-0 first half atom-bombings. Even more critical, though, is the opportunity for Rankin to become an impact player. Not just on the line, but in the scope of the entire defense. Mkristo Bruce was the last Cougar lineman who really struck fear in the hearts of the opposing offense, and WSU needs another player like that to break through. Rankin has the tools to be a force to be reckoned with, or at the very least draw double-teams and open up opportunities for the other guys on the line. For a Cougar defense that struggled earning tackles for loss last season (Long was among the leaders with a paltry two sacks last year), that's a positive change.
Biggest Question Mark
Depth. We're relying heavily on a JC guy (Rankin) and two men who have struggled historically with injuries (Kooyman, Wolfgramm). Anthony Laurenzi and Sekope Kaufusi are really attractive options off the bench, but beyond that I'm not really sure what WSU has. This group has to stay healthy to stay strong. Jordan Pu'u Robinson is already out for the year with an ACL tear, but I was too lazy to replace him on my projected depth chart. Partly because I'm not really sure who takes over that #3 spot at left end. I'm not sure Wulff knows either.
If I'm Paul Wulff, I wrap these guys in bubble wrap until the season opener, and then hope for the best during the fall.
Worst Case Scenario
Do I really need to remind you what the last two years were like?
Best Case Scenario
Brandon Rankin blows up and makes himself a popular pre-season All-Pac-10 selection for next fall. The Cougs stuff the run, force teams to pass more, and keep opponents in the 20s instead of, you know, the 50s. Someone on the team actually gets more than two sacks, and Glenn Johnson's voice goes out from having to say NOOOO GAAAAAAIIIIIIINNNN too many times. Travis Long starts to look like a star and the best Cougar defensive end since the aforementioned Bruce. Fans cheer and like going to Cougar football games again.
Split the difference between the two above scenarios. It's possible one or more injuries handicap this unit, and they never truly meet their rather stellar potential.
Still, I'll leave you with this ray of hope from Paul Wulff, from his Q&A this week with ESPN's Ted Miller:
I think our front four is right up there right now with most people in the Pac-10. We got two fifth-year seniors and a fourth-year junior in Brandon Rankin and a second-year kid, an excellent player, in end Travis Long. It's our most experienced group on our football team. It's probably the best unit we have right now.
Defensive line? Best unit on the team? Yes, please.