& & by Tony C. Duarte & & & &

Last season was a smorgasbord of bad news for the Cougars. If it wasn't one thing, it was another. If it wasn't trouble with Johnny Law (Kevin Brown), it was academics (Chris Martin). If it wasn't season-ending injuries (James Price), it was career-ending injuries (Mark Hedeen). And if it wasn't all that -- it was people quitting the team (Jason Hughes).

So it comes as a relief for Cougar head coach Mike Price that his team is already in better shape now than it was last year.

Offense is where most of the questions are, so it seems reasonable to begin our journey there. For the first time since Ryan Leaf shucked the shackles of Cougar fame for the $32 million fortune of the professional limelight, the Cougs enter a season with no quarterback controversy. Jason Gesser is the starter and will be the starter until Mike Price (or an opposing defender) says otherwise. Leaf's cousin, Matt Kegel, is the backup until he can formally grasp the nuances of the Price playbook, and then it will be a battle for starting supremacy. But for now, the Cougs enter the season with Gesser, who played in a few games last season but only started one -- the finale against Hawaii, where he directed the Cougs to victory in a gutty performance against a bowl-bound team on their home turf.

In the backfield will be sophomore sensation Deon Burnett, who filled the void left by Kevin Brown's stupidity with yards -- 974 of them, to be exact -- a new school rushing record for freshmen. Experience comes in senior backup Adam Hawkins and junior Jeremy Thielbahr, but watch junior college transfer David Minnich, who is expected to pay dividends immediately.

Receivers are another strong point for the Cougs, as Marcus Williams, Collin Henderson and Farwan Zubedi lead the pack. That's 57 of the Cougs' 239 total receptions from 1999 (approximately 25 percent). Backing them up will be a squadron of capable and, in some cases, experienced, hands, including Paul Mencke, DeAndre Douglas, Curtis Nettles, Jason White, Milton Wynn and Adam Davis.

Tight ends don't offer a huge edge for the Cougs, but returning starter Russell Mizin does bring experience to the position, and the size will [in theory] come from backups Josh Shavies and new JC transfer Mark Baldwin.

But success all depends on the offensive line -- and that's where things get a little murky for the Cougs. The Raymonds, Ryan and Reed -- WSU's twin towers, 6-7, 302 and 6-8, 310, respectively -- are the odds-on favorites to start the season, but are by no means locked in to finish it. Both Raymonds have been plagued by injury problems and have never fully developed their potential, and the 2000 season represents their last chance for gas.

The rest of the O-line is up in the air, and that's where the problem lies. Teams need experienced offensive lines to be upwardly mobile in the Pac-10 standings, and while the Cougs have a cadre of physically talented linemen waiting in the wings, very few have been tossed for any significant length of time into the Pac-10 fires. For now, starters look to be Phil Locker, Derrick Roche and Tyler Hunt with a combined six starts among them (the Raymonds have 15).

With a developing offensive line, Gesser and Burnett will need to be on their toes at all times as the inevitable breakdowns will occur -- they will need to innovate on the run.

Over on the defensive side of the ball, things look much brighter, with good team speed and experience. The defensive line starters will be Austin Matson and Tomasi Kongaika [TKO] or Ing Aleaga -- after that, it's a crapshoot. But it's a crapshoot the Cougs are guaranteed to win because while none of the other D-linemen (save Eric Boose and Fred Shavies) have starting experience, they have plenty of game time -- Anthony Adepipe, Mel Camarena and Tupo Tuupo have 27 games of experience between them. Backups Jeremey Williams, Tai Tupai and D.D. Acholonu all come with good credentials.

The linebackers are set with Raonall Smith, James Price (back from injury) and Player X to replace Curtis Holden. Candidates for filling the position are Mel "Champ" Simmons and transfers DeShon Weaver and Alex Nguae. Simmons has already seen 12 games' worth of playing time and would seem to be the favorite to snag the position, but he also gives up 20 pounds of bulk to Weaver and nearly 40 to Nguae and the Cougs cannot afford to have their middle linebacker pushed around the field. So Player X may wind up being a mystery man dependent on the Cougs' opponent that week.

In the defensive secondary, the starters -- Marcus Trufant, Billy Newman, Lamont Thompson and Chris Martin -- had been encased and carved in stone for some time now. That was until Thompson and Martin went down with injuries. Their backups? Newman's backup at strong safety, Ira Davis, seems to have a lock on Newman's job when he's gone and new Oklahoma Sooner transfer Michael Freeman joins fellow transfers Orvaughn Underwood (City College of San Francisco) and Tyrone Ward (Hartnell College in California) behind Martin. Former transfer Mory Banks backs up Thompson and yet another former transfer, Dante Minners, will backup Trufant. Untried freshman Erik Coleman from Lewis and Clark in Spokane has been a surprise and looks to get lots of playing time until Thompson comes back.

Special teams will be a hit-and-miss proposition with the Cougs this year. Normally anointed with good or great placekickers, the Cougs find themselves settling for an average kicker in Nick Lambert, provided he holds off senior Anousith Wilaikul and freshman Drew Dunning for the starting spot. In punting, transfer Alan Cox from Snow College in Utah brings a 44-yard punting average with him. Former linebacker and running back Brad-of-all-trades, Brad Philley, known for his fearless coverage, will be the special teams captain and could see some time at linebacker as well.

The Cougars take on the defending

Pac-10 champions, Stanford, in Pullman

at 7:15 pm, Saturday, Sept. 2.

Tickets: $20. Call: (800) GO-COUGS.

Tony C. Duarte covers the Cougs for CougZone, a website dedicated to Washington State University athletics. To follow Tony's coverage all season, along with other Cougar football news, check out www.cougzone.com.

Dreamworks Animation: The Exhibition @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 11
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