You can tell by Bill Doba's face that something is getting him excited. It's likely that it could be the prospect of watching the 2003 Cougars play football, which they will do, for the second time this year, against Idaho this Saturday in Seattle's Seahawks' Stadium. Then again, he might just be excited about something one of the freshman did in practice. It's hard to tell sometimes, and freshmen will be freshmen.
The Cougars' first game of 2003 was coached by a different man -- a man, it turns out, that some Cougar fans and well-wishers never really knew, after all. Mike Price was the head coach of WSU when the Cougars lost to Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl in January. Immediately after the game, he became the head coach at the University of Alabama, and his longtime defensive coordinator Doba was selected as the new head coach to lead the Cougars in the post-Jason Gesser era.
Five months later, Price was deposed as the Tide's head coach in a high-profile scandal involving a stripper, a hotel room and a room service bill. And there was Doba -- still in Pullman -- wondering if fifth-year-eternal-backup-quarterback Matt Kegel would have the confidence to take over where record-setting Gesser left off.
So far, the answer is a resounding "maybe."
Last year, with the benefit of a pleasurable schedule, a returning array of talent including Gesser, the Cougars -- for the first time ever -- were the favorite to win the Pac-10 conference title. After they responded by nearly running the table in the conference and toying with the national championship game, WSU finished up at the Rose Bowl with their second consecutive 10-win season at 10-3. With that in mind, the Cougars' second game of 2003 will see the debut of a new head coach and the team with the most depth of any Pac-10 team, including senior quarterback Kegel.
Matt Kegel will start the game against Idaho. (There's a period at the end of that sentence because in school, that's where they teach you to put one when a story ends.) There is no quarterback controversy in Pullman this year. At least not yet. Now when Kegel throws his first interception of the year, the first seed of controversy will be planted. But if that pick doesn't occur until, say, the third game of the year after eight touchdown passes have already been thrown, then it's likely that seed will never grow large enough to bear fruit.
After coming in as a highly touted Montana prep QB with strong bloodlines - he's Ryan Leaf's cousin -- Kegel's playing time has been mostly as second fiddle to Jason Gesser for the past three years. Now it's his turn at the wheel. Kegel has had spotty results as Gesser's backup over the years, with career numbers totaling just over 1,000 yards and a 3/3 TD-to-INT ratio. He is 1-1 as a starter, both of those games coming in the 2000 season when Gesser went down with a leg injury, and with the win coming against USC on the road. There are great expectations around the Cougar camp that Kegel will play more confidently than he has in his past, sporadic appearances on the field. Still, until he proves consistency on the field -- particularly in crucial game situations when the outcome is on the line -- Kegel will be a question mark coming into the season.
The Cougars have a formidable one-two punch in the backfield with returning seniors Jermaine Green and Jonathon Smith. Both Green and Smith spent much of the time last year visiting the trainer's table but still accounted for 1,113 yards between them (829 for Green, 284 for Smith) in the pass-heavy one-back offensive set WSU used under Price. Green's 5.5 yards-per-carry average is the highest of all regular Pac-10 returning starters this year, and Smith was used liberally as a passing option out of the backfield last year. The Cougars are expecting JC running back Chris Bruhn, who recently became academically eligible, to have an immediate impact.
The offensive line -- as usual -- is where everything begins and ends on offense. This year's Cougar O-line has a new coach in George Yarno, whose coaching style is decidedly more vociferous than that of predecessor Bob Connelly. Getting used to Yarno's style, coupled with some expected and unexpected temporary vacancies during spring ball, has meant that the O-line has taken time to develop into a cohesive unit.
The strength of that unit will be the three most experienced returning starters -- Calvin Armstrong, Chewelah's Josh Parrish and Billy Knotts -- along with sometime starter Sam Lightbody. Mike Shelford currently owns the starting center position, but Doba expects JC transfer Keola Loo to make some noise. If that elusive characteristic, chemistry, can be achieved, the Cougars' O-line may be a team strength this year.
The tight end unit is already a strength. Returning starter Troy Bienemann could make a case for being the league's best tight end by the end of the year. Bienemann had 15 receptions for 233 yards last year, putting him at a 15.5 average per reception. Of the returning Pac-10 starters, those numerals put him behind only USC's Alex Holmes and OSU's Tim Euhus, who are both seniors. Bienemann will be a sophomore this year.
The receiver positions feature a legit all-conference candidate in redshirt junior Devard Darling, the second-leading receiver on the team last year with 54 receptions. With one full credible season under his belt, Darling is a Cougar now and can probably shed his "Florida State transfer" label and establish his own WSU identity. Darling is complemented by senior Sammy Moore, redshirt senior Scott Lunde and redshirt sophomore Trandon Harvey. The speedster Moore was hampered with a hamstring injury for much of last year but did score a couple of touchdowns -- the most notable being of the special teams variety, a kickoff return against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. Lunde, who may miss the Idaho opener with a rib cartilage separation, was the fourth leading receiver last year with 30 receptions, mostly on bubble screens, and Harvey, who was redshirted last year, will return to continue what looked like a promising career before his injury.
On defense, WSU is neck-and-neck with USC for having the best and most experienced defensive line in the conference. The Cougars lost Outland Trophy winner Rien Long prematurely to the NFL or they would have unquestionably have had the best defensive line in the league. Even with Long gone, the Cougars have six of their top eight players from last year returning -- and all with either starting or significant game experience. Redshirt senior Jeremey Williams (out of Ferris High School) leads the returnees with 47 tackles and 7 TFLs (tackles for loss), and he is joined in the interior by fellow senior Tai Tupai, a 19-game starter. Twin sack-masters redshirt senior Isaac Brown and senior D.D. Acholonu -- who were responsible for 14.5 sacks last year -- both return.
For the linebackers, it's the same verse as the first: The Cougars should be neck-and-neck with the Trojans for the best unit on the Pac-10 block this year. They return potential all-conference player redshirt sophomore Will Derting along with a solid group of starters anchored by junior Pat Bennett (who is currently injured and may miss the opener), redshirt senior Al Genatone and senior Donnie Jackson (also currently injured). There are 21 starts from last year sprinkled among those four players. Despite missing six games due to injury, Derting is the leading returning tackler (with 46) among the linebackers, and he was second only to conference-leading interceptor Jason David with three picks last year. Also sure to see significant playing time are newcomers Aaron Wagner (who's returning from a Mormon mission), Scott Davis and Brian Hall. Davis may possibly get a start if Jackson is not fully recovered from injury.
The defensive secondary is where the Cougars will be challenged the most. They lost defensive secondary coach Chris Ball and the best corner in the league last year in Marcus Trufant (now with the Seahawks). Ball was replaced by Purdue's Ken Greene, a former Cougar, so they should not miss a beat there, but Trufant is simply irreplaceable and Karl Paymah will need to play his best at all times to match the play of the conference's leading interceptor -- Jason David. The Cougars do get a break in returning their defensive quarterback -- senior free safety Erik Coleman (from Lewis and Clark) -- who was the team's leading tackler (86) last year. They also get redshirt senior Virgil Williams, (who won his medical hardship appeal) at strong safety for another year. But after that top four, the Cougars are thin on healthy players with significant playing experience.
Special teams could be the best unit in the league this year, as the Cougars return the conference's top kickoff returner in Moore, top punt returner in Coleman, third-best (according to average) punter in Kyle Basler and fourth-best kicker (according to percentage) Drew Dunning.
The schedule is perhaps the most daunting element facing the 2003 Cougars. Whereas last year, the planets aligned and WSU played most of the power teams in Pullman, this year, the Cougars, lending to the skepticism that they can repeat as conference champs, play the majority of the tough teams -- Notre Dame (Sept. 6 on NBC), Colorado (Sept. 13), Oregon (Sept. 27), USC (Nov. 1 on ABC) and Washington (Nov. 22) -- on the road.
The Cougs kick off their season at 7:30 pm on Saturday, Aug. 30, at Seahawks Stadium against Idaho. Tickets: $10-$40. Call: (206) 628-0888. For single-game or season tickets, call (800) GO-COUGS.
Tony's pac-10 picks
1] USC -- The Boys of Troy are consistently overrated -- tops in the nation in that category over the last 11 years -- but they truly do have the horses. AD Mike Garrett threw his temper tantrum and got his wish -- no more thunder sticks this year in conference games. So pay no attention to that minor quarterback issue; the path is clear for USC to take the title.
2] Oregon State -- Never mind what Sports Illustrated says -- any team with Steven Jackson and Richard Siegler is to be reckoned with. The Beavers have a new coach that really isn't a new coach in Mike Riley, who returns to finish what he started.
3] WSU -- It's difficult to get a good perspective on WSU -- it's like taking a multiple-choice exam where the professor doesn't know the answers, either.
4] Arizona State -- This time, the Sun Devils know who their quarterback is coming into the season, which is already a distinct improvement over last year at this time.
5] Washington -- Is it 2003 already? Time for the Huskies to be uncontrollably hyped again. There is no line on the Huskies' chances, but a betting man might pick them to reach the Final Four.
6] Oregon -- What? No billboards in NYC erected as a monument to pretension this year? A new mascot to scare the kiddies again, perhaps? Never mind, maybe those new uni's will do the trick.
7] UCLA -- Holy Toledo, Batman! Bob is gone and he has been replaced by Karl Dorrell from the Denver Broncos. Maybe the Bruins will be good this year, but we're adopting a wait-and-see stance on how they react to King Karl.
8] California -- Here's what we say to Cal or any team returning two starters on defense from the year before: Good luck!
9] Stanford -- The Trees have Buddy Teevens, though his Stun 'n Gun offense from last year is on the operating table and displaying no vital signs, as they return only three starters. Oh well, they'll always have that degree.
10] Arizona -- "Bring out your dead!" Middle manager Mackovic has lost multiple starters to academics, injury or team evictions and has alienated star running back Clarence Farmer and most of Tucson. It's merely a matter of time before AD Jim Livengood tries to hire Mike Price.