ESPN Insider’s Blue Ribbon Preview: 2005 Cougs

Interesting write-up on the Cougs via ESPN and their Blue Ribbon preview. Nothing earth-shattering, but still, a pretty good take.

COACH AND PROGRAM

From 2001-03 — for the first time in 70 years — a Pac-10 team won double-digit games in three consecutive seasons. And no, the program wasn’t USC.
And while Washington State’s streak was halted last season, the final epitaph of the 2004 Cougars has yet to be written.

Will they be remembered as a hard-luck bunch that lost three of their six games by a touchdown or less? Will the 2004 squad just be a minor setback en route to Washington State having established itself as a perennial Top 25 program? Or will last season be recalled as the beginning of the end of the greatest three-year run in Washington State football history?

While the answers won’t be known for a while, it appears a safe bet that the truth probably lies somewhere in between. That said, however, another 10-win season certainly isn’t out of the question in 2005, says third-year coach Bill Doba.

“There’s not one coach in the country who doesn’t think they can win the national championship during spring practice and in August,” Doba said. “It’s USC and everyone else right now in this conference, unless, you know, they run into some problems. The media is so heavy down there and we don’t deal with that. And this spring, it had one player hitting another in the jaw and its offensive coordinator [Norm Chow] left and who knows?

“I tell you this, though. I really like this team. It has the attitude, the work ethic and the camaraderie. We’re taking care of each other on the field. During spring practice, a defensive player had a chance to really knock out our running back and you know, instead, he held up. That happened more than once. And that means something.”

Doba, who signed a contract extension on Feb. 1 through the 2009 campaign, isn’t one for hyperbole. He’s as old-school as they come, having coached more than four decades in the high school and college ranks before receiving his chance after Mike Price departed Pullman for Alabama in 2002. For certain, Doba hasn’t spent much time in Coachspeak 101 and says just about whatever is on his mind. When asked about the team’s place-kicking situation, Doba laughed and said, “I’ve seen kicks this spring that hit my center in the butt.”

Jokes aside, the man can coach football. He guided the Cougars — minus most of its previous year’s coaching staff and picked for seventh in the conference — to 10 wins and a Holiday Bowl victory over fifth-ranked Texas in 2003. And, in fairness, last season’s team returned six-of-22 starters and could’ve easily started the Pac-10 season at 4-0 instead of 1-3. A break here, a field goal there and those 41-38 and 23-17 finals could’ve easily been flip-flopped. But could’ve, should’ve and would’ve don’t win football games.

That 10-win season in Doba’s first autumn and the disappointing 5-6 effort last year are in the rear view mirror. With 15 returning starters and strong depth, Washington State appears set to resume its winning ways.

QUARTERBACKS

Without debate, this is the team’s No. 1 question mark entering the season. And while Doba considers junior Josh Swogger (6-5, 247) the incumbent, sophomore Alex Brink (6-2, 208) had more passing yards, attempts and completions than Swogger in 2004 and took the majority of snaps during spring practice.
However, in fairness to Swogger, his lack of playing time last season and during spring practice was because of injury. And even though he was still recovering from foot surgery this spring, Swogger was able to participate in drills.

“It’s going to be a battle heading into the fall,” Doba said. “As I told everyone last season, Swogger won the job but then he was injured. Brink did well enough in his place and it’s going to be a challenge to each of them.”

Doba, however, is not interested in a revolving quarterback process.
“I want one guy and just one guy to be this team’s quarterback,” Doba said. “Obviously if the starter is having a horrible game, we’ll replace him, but this isn’t going to be one guy playing a half and the other playing a half. We can’t afford that. We need a quarterback when the season starts.”

While he isn’t involved in the process this season, red-shirt freshman Gary Rogers (6-6, 228) impressed the staff during the spring and could emerge as the starter in 2006.
“He reminds me of another Washington State quarterback with his height and build,” Doba said. “He even looks like [Drew] Bledsoe and the kid has great potential but it takes time and he isn’t going to be ready this year.”

RUNNING BACKS

It’s kind of unfair to describe senior tailback Jerome Harrison (5-9, 192) as a potential breakout player in the Pac-10 this season. He rushed for 900 yards and nine touchdowns in 2004 and even more impressively, averaged 5.2 yards per carry. And keep in mind that Harrison started only five games.

If the average college football fan hasn’t heard of Harrison, trust us, Pac-10 defensive coordinators most definitely have. And if the spring season was any indication, a lot more people are going to be recognizing his name come autumn.

In the team’s final spring scrimmage, on April 16, Harrison rushed for 67 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. Two weeks earlier, Harrison made even his own coaches and teammates gush with 96 yards and two scores on five carries. Yes, five carries. That included a you-have-to-be-joking 70-yard scamper that had teammates referring to Harrison as “The Ghost.”

“Jerome had such a great spring and he could really have monster season,” Doba said. “The assistant coaches were saying that they’ve never seen cuts like he was making this spring. We were all looking at each other and saying, ‘Wow.’

“He’s just so darn elusive and we have seldom seen a good hit on him. It’s just tough to find him out there.”

Don’t be fooled by Washington State’s four- and five-receiver sets and lack of a fullback on most plays. They have, can and will run the ball and if Harrison lives up to expectations this year, he’s sure to see plenty of action. A 1,500-yard campaign and All-Pac-10 honors aren’t out of the question. He’s capable of putting up big numbers, as his 247 yards on 42 carries at UCLA last season would attest. And Harrison is a decent receiver, too.

As far as his backup goes, that was undecided heading into fall practice.
“We need a back-up, there’s no debating that,” Doba said. “We honestly had no clue entering the spring and we have about that same idea now.”

Among the candidates are sophomore Jed Collins (6-2, 241) and senior Brandon Asuega-Stark (5-10, 213). A freshman could grab No. 2 on the depth chart with a solid August, too.
Sophomore Kevin McCall (5-11, 209) might have been in the mix, but probably took himself out of the equation after pleading guilty on May 24 to fourth-degree assault with sexual motivation and being sentenced to 45 days in jail. He was arrested in March on a charge of third-degree rape from an alleged sexual assault in a campus dormitory. Doba suspended McCall immediately from the team and he didn’t participate in spring practice.

The Cougars don’t use a fullback in their offense and thus, have none on their roster. When Washington State goes with an I-formation, mainly in short yardage situations, a tight end will handle the lead blocking responsibilities.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

The Cougars are simply loaded at receiver and tight end coming into fall practice.
All four starters return and at least two, if not three, should vie for All-Pac-10 honors. And each of the ten players that caught more than one pass in 2004 is back on the roster.
Beginning at split end, junior Jason Hill (6-0, 198) was Washington State’s Offensive Most Valuable Player in 2004 and in the process; he became the sixth player in program history to surpass 1,000 receiving yards in a single season. Hill finished with 45 catches for 1,007 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also led the Pac-10 with 22.4 yards per reception.
In earning second-team All-Pac-10 recognition, Hill recorded four 100-yard games, including a career-high 206 yards versus Colorado on Sept. 11.

As a true freshman in 2004, Hill didn’t catch a pass but was among the team’s best special teams players.

Starting in the slot will be sophomore Michael Bumpus (5-11, 174). In 2004, he started seven games and caught 35 passes for 318 yards and a touchdown. He was also among the premier punt returners in the country. His best game as a receiver came against USC on Oct. 30. Bumpus had six grabs that afternoon, including a 24-yard touchdown.
“Bumpus had a lot of reps during spring practice and we’d like to see him more involved with the offense,” Doba said.

Senior Trandon Harvey (5-11, 193) and junior Chris Jordan (6-1, 204) are expected to share duties at flanker. While Jordan started last season, making 20 receptions for 356 yards and a score, the duo basically saw the same number of chances in 2004. Harvey hauled in 18 balls for 203 yards and two touchdowns in 2004. Jordan was injured during most of the spring session but was expected to be fine by August.

Depth is plentiful, beginning with junior Marty Martin (5-10, 186). He caught 15 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown last season and was mentioned along with Harvey by Doba as players that impressed this spring. Martin is likely to backup Bumpus at slot back.
Senior Greg Prator (6-0, 210) is Hill’s understudy. He had 10 grabs for 118 yards and a touchdown in 2004 and is more than capable.

The tight end is senior Troy Bienemann (6-4, 245). A two-time first-team Pac-10 All-Academic selection, Bienemann is impressive on and off the field. A solid blocker, he placed third on the team in receptions with 26 last season. He also scored a pair of touchdowns and racked up 288 receiving yards.

His backups include juniors Jesse Taylor (6-3, 242) and Cody Boyd (6-8, 251). Another name to remember is redshirt freshman Jacob McKinney (6-2, 250), who is likely to serve as the fullback in short-yardage situations.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The offense lost just two starters and both came from this unit. Still, this doesn’t appear to be a weakness heading into two-a-days in August. And with three easy non-conference games, by the Pac-10 opener, the unit has time to jell.

The rock of the line is senior center Nick Mihlhauser (6-3, 286). He started all 11 games last season and received honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors. A three-year starter, including 2005, Mihlhauser will set the tone on and off the field for the men in the trenches.
On Mihlhauser’s left side is senior guard Norvell Holmes (6-2, 310), who started seven games last season. After missing his entire sophomore season with a back injury, Holmes was reasonably healthy last year. If he can remain on the field for 12 games, the offensive line could be among the top four or five in the Pac-10.

The third returning starter on the line is towering sophomore tackle Bobby Byrd (6-7, 294). As a redshirt freshman, Byrd started nine games and at times dominated interior lineman three and four years his senior. He should be the most improved player in the group.

The right side of the line will have two first-time starters. The favorites entering August are senior guard Riley Fitt-Chappell (6-7, 316) and junior tackle Charles Harris (6-6, 312).
And after an impressive spring season, sophomore tackle Sean O’Connor (6-5, 275) could challenge Harris and at the least, see significant time as a backup.

“I was impressed with both Harris and O’Connor during out scrimmages and we feel pretty good about where our line play is entering camp,” Doba said.

Others on the depth chart include red-shirt freshmen guards Andy Roof (6-3, 309) and Dan Rowlands (6-4, 284), junior tackle Spencer Hollison (6-6, 287) and redshirt freshman center Eddie Vickers (6-3, 348).

KICKERS

Doba isn’t exactly thrilled with his place-kicking situation. Last year, the Cougars missed eight-of-14 field goals, including a stunning three-of-four inside of 30 yards.
That is not only frustrating, but when an offense sustains a long drive inside the defense’s 10-yard line and zero points are placed on the scoreboard, it can be demoralizing, too.
“It wasn’t pleasant,” Doba said.

Both kickers are back for another go-around in 2005. And whether that’s good news or bad depends on their improvement.

First up is diminutive sophomore Loren Langley (5-7, 146), who made five-of-11 attempts and missed two extra points in 32 chances.

“Loren is always close, so maybe that’s a good sign,” Doba said.
Junior Graham Siderius (6-1, 196) missed two-of-three attempts last year and didn’t look much improved during spring sessions.

“I don’t know what to do,” Doba said. “Hopefully one will step up and the competition will bring out the best in them. They can kick; it’s just a matter of dealing with the pressure.”

DEFENSIVE LINE

While the offense, while lacking depth, appears a strength entering the season, most perceive the defense an unknown. However, behind a solid 4-3 aligned front seven, the defense has the potential to push the Cougars from a six- or seven-win season to something really special.
The line returns three of its four starters from 2004 and some depth. The top returnee is junior end Mkristo Bruce (6-6, 240). Last season, he made 60 tackles and led the Cougars with 6.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss and six quarterback hurries. He’s on a short list of the best returning ends in the Pac-10 and is not only quick getting to the quarterback but also above average against the run.

Bruce should be drawing numerous double teams, which should free up other players to make tackles. And while that might hurt his statistics, it’ll help the team and his stock as one of the top half dozen ends in the Pac-10.

Another returning starter, senior Adam Braidwood (6-5, 264) is expected to line up at strong side end. A special teams player his first two years, Braidwood started all 11 games in 2004 and finished with 43 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss.

Sophomore tackle Aaron Johnson (6-6, 303) could be the most improved player on the defense. A physical presence at the least, Johnson started seven games in 2004 as a redshirt freshman and made 17 tackles, including 5.5 for loss. He also had a sack.

The other expected starter tackle is sophomore Ropati Pitoitua (6-8, 302), who saw significant time last season as a true freshman and made 24 tackles, five sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. He started four games and could rack up double-digit sacks this year. And with an added 30 pounds of mass, Pitoitua should be much improved against the run.

“The line is much improved,” Washington State defensive coordinator Robb Ackey said. “Our two tackles, Johnson and Pitoitua, are big guys for sophomores and for playing for the first time in the Pac-10, really did all right. They looked much better, though, this spring, and we’re expecting good things. We really like our options at tackle.”

The line has some pretty solid depth as well, led by junior tackle Odell Howard (6-3, 272). In 2004, Howard has 13 tackles and an impressive 3.5 sacks. A good athlete, he’ll also see time at defensive end.

Others include sophomore end Paul Stevens (6-3, 246), who had nine tackles and 1.5 sacks and could be a player to watch, and senior end Adam West (6-6, 243).

Sophomore end Reyshawn Bobo (6-2, 220) and redshirt freshmen Matt Eichelberger (6-3, 342) and Jason Roberts (6-4, 225) could also see action.

LINEBACKERS

Senior captain Will Derting (6-0, 223) is one season away from completing one of the most impressive four-year careers for a Pac-10 linebacker in recent memory. A four-year starter, Derting first earned Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week honors as a freshman in 2002 when he intercepted three passes, including a 98-yard touchdown return, against Nevada. As a sophomore, he was first-team All-Pac-10, with 86 tackles and 7.5 sacks. And last year, Derting made 93 tackles, including 11.5 for loss. His best game in 2004 came versus USC and included 14 tackles, 2.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks.

Among the preseason candidates for the Butkus Award, Derting, who lines up at middle linebacker but tackles within a 20-yard radius of the snap, should earn first-team All-Pac-10 recognition for a second time this autumn.

This unit returns a second starter in junior Scott Davis (5-11, 225). Last season, Davis made 86 tackles, 8.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks. He was second on the squad in tackles and was a presence on the strong side. A hard-hitter, he also had three fumble recoveries and five pass breakups.
The third starter at linebacker will likely be junior Steve Dildine (6-2, 218). He contributed 29 stops in 2004 and with teams not really interested in running plays toward Derting or even Davis; Dildine is expected to see plenty of action.

The backups are led by juniors Chris Baltzer (6-0, 225) and Brian Hall (6-2, 228). A few of the newcomers could also factor into the picture as depth could be a problem if any of the three Ds (Derting, Davis, Dildine) go down. If the trio stays healthy, they should be among the best units in not only the Pac-10 but the country.

“We think our defense gained some ground in not only the way we finished, but during the spring season, too,” Ackey said. “Our linebackers could be a real strength this season and Derting should be one of the best in the Pac-10. We also feel there’s some depth at linebacker and if the secondary can cover, well, we feel pretty good about this defense.”

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Not even the program’s head coach and defensive coordinator know what to expect from this group. The secondary lost three 2004 starters and appears to be a huge question mark entering August, but some newcomers looked decent during spring sessions and gave their coaches hope of something better this season. Considering the Cougars allowed 21 touchdown passes a year ago, any improvement could be vitally important.

Doba and Ackey are cautiously optimistic about this unit’s success in 2005. Obviously, their performance is going to be aided greatly by the expected strong play of the front seven, but still, if the DBs aren’t up to task, the Cougars could be looking at another disappointing campaign.
“We have a little concern with the depth in secondary,” Doba said. “I’m not doing to dispute that.”

The lone returning starter is senior cornerback Alex Teems (5-11, 176). He started 10-of-11 games in 2004 and finished with 47 tackles, two interceptions and seven pass breakups. However, while an adequate Pac-10 corner, Teems doesn’t seem to possess the skills needed to be the No. 1 guy in this conference. He should see plenty of help from the safeties when covering a top-flight wide out.

The other cornerback spot was still up for grabs entering August but only because senior Tyron Brackenridge (5-11, 180) was unable to corral it. A junior college transfer a year ago, he had two interceptions last season but overall was a disappointment.

That said, the starter departing spring practice was experienced senior Omowale Dada (5-10, 190), who had 26 tackles and four pass break-ups last season. Dada doesn’t take a lot of chances and understands the defense better than most in the defensive backfield.

Other cornerbacks battling for playing time include junior Don Turner (6-0, 187), who could add a physical presence, and redshirt freshman Ian Bell (5-9, 185).

At safety, the spring starters were junior Eric Frampton (5-11, 195) at strong and sophomore Husain Abdullah (6-0, 188) at free.

Frampton had 24 tackles last season and is highly regarded as an elite athlete. He showed big-time promise in the spring and if his instincts begin matching his talent, Frampton would quickly remove any question marks from his starting gig.

As for Abdullah, he was solid as a redshirt freshman in 2004, making 26 tackles and an interception. He could be among the surprises of the Pac-10.

“Frampton showed quick progress this spring and I think we can cover better than we did a year ago,” Ackey said. “All the signs coming into August are encouraging.”

Sophomore Christian Bass (6-2, 204) and JUCO transfer DeWayne Patterson (6-1, 190) will provide depth at safety.

PUNTERS

While place-kicker remains a question mark entering August, the punting situation is the exact opposite. Senior Kyle Basler (6-3, 231) is among the best in the Pac-10, having earned conference honorable mention in each of his three seasons (2002-04). The last two years he was also a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award.

He averaged 43.1 yards per kick last season, with 19 landing inside the 20. Basler has had only two punts blocked over 205 career boots. And long after he has departed Pullman, tales will still be told about his 87-yard punt at Arizona on Sept. 25, 2004. It was the second longest in Pac-10 history.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Cougars boast a superb special teams unit — place-kicking aside — and if not for USC standout Reggie Bush, who finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2004, Bumpus would’ve been the best punt returner in the Pac-10.

Bumpus, who earned Freshman All-American honors from Rivals.com as a utility player, returned 34 punts for 391 yards and two touchdowns. He averaged 11.5 yards per return and was a second-team All-Pac-10 selection.

His scores included 52-yard SportsCenter play of the week return versus Oregon on Oct. 9 and an electrifying 76-yard score at Arizona State on Nov. 13. The latter was the sixth longest in program history.

Harrison and senior cornerback Tyron Brackenridge (5-11, 180) share the kick return duties, although if Harrison (10 returns, 17.2 average) becomes a 20-25 carry a game back it’s likely Brackenridge (14 returns, 22.2 average) will handle the majority of the work.

NOTE – BRACKENRIDGE is likely done at WSU and will not be with the team this fall. He will attend a JC to get his grades up and could re-enroll next year.

Bienermann handles long snaps, while Siderius will kick off regardless of who wins the place-kicking gig. The punt and kickoff teams were decent last year and should both be at least moderately improved this season.