by Tony C. Duarte
For Cougar Head Coach Mike Price, the 2001 football season can't come soon enough. After the euphoria of the 1997 Rose Bowl season wore off (about midway through the 1998 season), Price has been battling both reality and perception -- and losing on both fronts. Reality had dictated that Price had to rebuild from the senior-dominated Rose Bowl team and that one year wasn't going to be enough. But three years? That's where perception stepped in -- in the guise of repressed pessimism and perhaps a few disgruntled alumni -- and demanded that Price start producing. Or else. For his part, Price is unswayed by the perception and can't wait to get back out on the gridiron.
"I don't feel extra pressure -- other than self-inflicted pressure -- to win this year more than any other year, and the administration has certainly been very supportive of me and the program," says Price. "I can understand the people who want us to be better than we have been, and I want that too, of course, but we're not desperate. We didn't sell the farm. We're still doing what we've always done, bringing in a good mix of quality athletes, from both high schools and junior colleges, and developing them. I'm not recruiting these guys for some other coach to enjoy, you know? I'm recruiting them because I plan on being here to coach them."
Still, even with the farm unsold, if you're Price, you couldn't blame yourself for thinking about what you could have been staring at this fall if it wasn't for some scalpel-like attrition. Just think what coulda been. If you had Price's eyeballs, you'd probably be looking at -- no, make that gazing longingly at -- a returning starting offensive backfield consisting of quarterback Jason Gesser and running backs David Minnich and Deon Burnett. They'd be flanked by returning starting receivers Milton Wynn, Nakoa McElrath, Collin Henderson and bolstered by hoop team escapee Mike Bush, behind what should be an athletic and relatively experienced offensive line supported by experienced tight ends Russell Mizin and Josh Shavies. On defense, your eyes might steam up your glasses as you view potential NFL defensive lineman Mark Hedeen (whose career was cut short two years ago by a spinal condition and who would have been a senior this year), linebackers Curtis Holden and Champ Simmons. Then there's highly touted defensive linemen Ing Aleaga, Ferris High School's Jeremey Williams and Tai Tupai in addition to a secondary comprised of Lamont Thompson, Billy Newman and MarcusTrufant -- backed up by Lewis and Clark's Erik Coleman and emerging standout Jason David. You quite possibly could have been looking at the next Pac-10 conference champion.
But that's what coulda been in the dreamy world of sunshine and lollipops. What really happened in the world of sub-zero cold spells and grandma's fruitcake is harder for Price to swallow -- and creates a higher hurdle for him to leap in 2001.
During the off-season, the team's leading receiver, Milton Wynn, was not granted another year of eligibility and had to depart for the NFL. Holden, a potential starting linebacker, was never able to regain the necessary academic progress and joined probable starting tight end Russell Mizin in that non-scholar club. Shavies was booted off the team this spring, and Aleaga has been beset by injuries throughout his Cougar career. Both Burnett and Simmons had well-publicized departures from the team, Burnett's coming during halftime of last year's Apple Cup and Simmons' coming this month after he felt Pullman police failed to properly handle the frat fracas he was involved in earlier this spring. All of this doesn't count the usual new-recruit attrition. Overall, this is not the most pleasurable off-season Price has ever had.
As it stands, the Cougs and Price will have to make do knowing that the quarterback of the future has arrived in the present. Jason Gesser -- the leader in Pac-10 passing efficiency last year -- has fully recovered from his 2000 season-ending injury, made it through rehab, spring scrimmage and a Pullman summer unscathed and ready to lead the offense.
"I'm pretty confident in my own abilities now," says Gesser. "Last year, sometimes I was double-checking and worrying about what Coach Price would think, and I wasn't focusing on the things I needed to be doing."
While the defense has some strong elements, the offense still has to take a long walk down the produce aisle -- and we're not talking about the grocery store. Last year, Gesser had the twin towers of Wynn and Marcus Williams as his wideouts. This year, Gesser doesn't have that luxury, although he does have an outstanding receiver returning in McElrath, a steady-hands guy in Henderson and an up-and-comer in Bush. Gesser would like to have a few breakout years from Curtis Nettles, Jason White or DeAndre Douglas, or he might have to rely on freshman Marty Martin or JC newcomers Jerome Riley or Tyjuan "On" Mayfield to get quickly acclimated. The emphasis on receiver production is more acute with the loss of tight end depth (Mizin and Mark Baldwin, for one month, with a knee injury). And there's last-minute rumors of Florida State's speedy Devard Darling transfering to Pullman with three years of eligibility -- and being able to play this season. Hard to believe, but it could be true.
The starting backfield is the sole possession of last year's leading rusher, David Minnich, and the only question is who will spell him and in what situations. Sandpoint's Jeremy Thielbahr has been moved to tight end, and John Tippins is a short-yardage-type back, which means the likely source of long yardage gains when Minnich isn't available would come from true freshmen Jimmy Wilson or Allen Thompson.
Of course, the running backs' successes are all dependent on the offensive line, and there the Cougars return one of the most experienced and athletic lines they have had in some time. Offensive linemen Tyler Hunt and Derrick Roche started all 11 games last year, Phil Locker started nine and Josh Parrish started seven. Joey Hollenbeck and Billy Knotts started four and three games, respectively. Of the projected starters, only Sam Lightbody has yet to experience a real-game start, but he has been anointed as a diamond in the rough who should get more refined with experience this year. Last year, the offensive line was branded "young and athletic" -- with the young part of that moniker giving them some leeway in how many mistakes they could make. This year, they are just "athletic" -- which eliminates that mistake buffer zone.
Cougar fans and well-wishers tend to get defensive about the defense of recent years. On one hand, there's all that potential as represented by linemen Tupai, Aleaga, Williams and Isaac Brown -- buttressed by the pleasant developments of Tomasi "TKO" Kongaika, Fred Shavies, Rien Long, Steve Cook and D.D. Acholonu. But so far, none of that potential or pleasantness has produced a cohesive top-tier defensive unit. Safeties Newman and Lamont Thompson, who has fully recovered from his neck injury and is ready for the 2001 season, are the obvious strengths of the unit. They should get help from defensive backs Trufant and Coleman -- with nickel-package help from Jason David. This portion of the Cougar defense looks to be in good shape across the front lines and could be among the best secondaries in the Pac-10 by season's end.
Linebacking took a hit in the chops with the loss of Holden, Simmons and Simmons' replacement Al Genatone (to a knee injury). There is likely to be some shuffling of the back seven in order to get the best athletes on the field at all times. On the positive side, there are three seniors returning at linebacker (all with game starts or experience) in James Price, Raonall Smith and Serign Marong.
Meanwhile, down in the trenches, most of the usual names are back, along with City College of San Francisco transfer Nate Mallory. "TKO" needs to fully recuperate from injury and get back up to speed by the third or fourth game -- meaning Long and Tupai will be on the bubble to perform from the first day. Based on their experience, Shavies and Tupai could be the most improved, and the speedy Acholonu is like a cat ready to pounce on opportunity this year.
Special teams is where the Cougs will look to improve with the addition of kickers Adam Holiday and Graham Siderius. The kicking game cost the Cougs in those overtime games last year, so Price took some steps to prevent a reoccurrence this year.
That's the 2001 Cougs, more or less. Although they won't face their first conference foe (Cal) for another month and a half, they will be forced into a must-win situation with their first non-conference game next Thursday against Idaho. In a home game for both teams, the Cougs will look to make a statement against the always tough Vandals, a team that has beaten the Cougs two years in a row after having not beaten them for 34 years.
"It's the most important game of the year right now," says Gesser. "That's the way we have to look at it. But that's the way we look at all the games this season. After the Idaho game, the Boise State game is the most important game of the year, and after them Colorado, and so on."
Mike Price and his Cougs have been three years removed from the spotlight of the Rose Bowl; their quest for redemption begins next week in Pullman. A win isn't mandatory, but a loss means that discussion of Price's future will be one hot potato.
The Cougs kick off their season against Idaho in Martin Stadium
on Thursday, Aug. 30, at 7 pm. Tickets: $5-$35 per game;
$129 for all six home games. Other home games are:
Colorado (Sept. 15); Cal (Sept. 22) Oregon State (Oct. 6);
Oregon (Oct. 27); UCLA (Nov. 3). Call: (800) GO-COUGS.
Follow Tony Duarte's coverage of the Cougs
throughout the season at www.cougzone.com.