August 17, 1998
PULLMAN, Wash. - "It's time to reload," says nine-year veteran head coach Mike Price as the defending Pacific-10 Conference Champion Washington State Cougars prepare for the 1998 season.
Coming off one of the best seasons in the history of the program, Price and his staff will be looking at a lot of new faces in the 1998 starting lineup, but in most cases not unfamiliar faces.
WSU, winners of the Pac-10 title at 7-1 and a 10-2 club overall, lost 25 letterwinners from an experienced team that pushed national champion Michigan to the closing seconds before falling to the Wolverines 21-16 in the Rose Bowl.
Now Price, who copped several national coach of the year awards including the Eddie Robinson and Bobby Dodd Awards, will reload from a roster that includes 35 returning letterwinners and the addition of several key junior college transfers and even possibly a freshman or two.
WSU STARTERS RETURNING
Defense: DT Gary Holmes, LB Steve Gleason, CB Dee Moronkola, FS Lamont Thompson.
Offense: OT Rob Rainville, TE Love Jefferson.
Certainly WSU lost one of the school's best senior classes ever, including quarterback Ryan Leaf and defensive linemen Dorian Boose and Leon Bender, but the cupboard is hardly bare.
The Cougars, ranked ninth in both major polls at the close of the 1997 season, return 10 of last year's top 22 on offense, including starters Love Jefferson (senior, 6-3, 261) at tight end and Rob Rainville (senior, 6-5, 323) at offensive tackle.
Defensively the Cougs return 14 of last year's top 22. The list includes four starters, All-American candidate Gary Holmes (senior, 6-7, 329) at tackle, linebacker Steve Gleason (junior, 5-11, 215), plus Dee Moronkola (senior, 5-9, 194) and All-American candidate Lamont Thompson (sophomore, 6-1, 204) from the secondary.
Much like WSU's 1994 defense that led the nation, the Cougars will rely on speed and more speed next fall. In the spring, 24 players ran 4.5 seconds or faster over 40 yards, while 22 did the pro bench press minimum of 225 pounds 20 times. In addition, 45 players had vertical jumps of 30 inches or more, 24 players squated 500 or more pounds and 15 bench pressed a minimum 400 pounds.
Joining Holmes up front will be three second unit defensive linemen, ends Rob Meier (junior, 6-6, 266) and Jonathan Nance (senior, 6-4, 234) and tackle Taeao Salausa (senior, 6-3, 284), plus redshirt end Jesse Ratcliff (junior, 6-3, 260). Highly touted freshman Ing Aleaga (6-3, 280) will also get a serious look in the fall, along with converted LBs Austin Matson (6-3, 246) and Serign Marong (6-1, 226).
WSU STARTERS LOST
Defense: DT Leon Bender, DE Shane Doyle, DE Dorian Boose, LB Todd Nelson, LB Brandon Moore, CB Ray Jackson, SS Duane Stewart.
Offense: WR Chris Jackson, WR Shawn McWashington, SB Shawn Tims, RB Michael Black, QB Ryan Leaf, OG Jason McEndoo, OG Cory Withrow, OT Ryan McShane, C Lee Harrison.
While not loaded with experience, WSU's linebacker corp may prove to be one of the team's strengths. The group, headed by Gleason, has speed and size, ala the 1994 club that produced NFL players Mark Fields, Ron Childs and Chris Hayes.
The list of potential starters include sophomores Brad Philley (6-2, 212) and James Price (5-11, 217), junior Grady Emmerson (6-0, 200) and redshirt freshmen Raonall Smith (6-2, 232) and Tupo Tuupo (6-2, 245).
The secondary includes Moronkola, who started all 12 games a year ago, and Thompson, the freshman standout who set a Pac-10 (frosh) record with six interceptions, despite not seeing significant action until the final four games of the season.
LeJuan Gibbons (junior, 5-10, 171) made eight starts at corner last year, while Torry Hollimon (junior, 5-11, 195) had three starts at strong safety. In addition, Jermaine Hunsaker (sophomore, 5-9, 175) backed up Moronkola all season. Joining the returnees will be safety Earl Riley (junior, 6-2, 217), a junior college transfer who redshirted last year, plus Chris Martin (junior, 6-0, 190), an outstanding cornerback out of San Francisco CC who joins the team in the fall.
WSU's kicking game is not an area of concern for Price, thanks to the return of junior placekicker Rian Lindell (junior, 6-3, 245) and the addition of Kareem Anderson (junior, 6-0, 199), a talented punter from Phoenix College. An All-American candidate, Lindell hit 12-of-17 field goals, including a long of 57, and added 57 extra points. He closed out 1997 making six straight field goals, including 48 and 52 yarders. Anderson averaged 44.1 yards as a sophomore at Phoenix College.
Price predicts WSU's offensive line next year, despite returning just one starter, will be more athletic than the line that protected Leaf last fall.
Ready to step up will be tackles Jon Ottenbreit (junior, 6-6, 285), Mickey Long (senior, 6-4, 304) and WSU's version of the twin towers, Reed (sophomore, 6-8, 308) and Ryan (sophomore, 6-7, 308) Raymond. The line will also be strengthened by the addition of three JC transfers who were able to redshirt last fall, juniors Joe Criscione (6-3, 300), Ryan Tujague (6-6, 292) and Lincoln Walden-Schulz (6-4, 282).
Junior Steve Birnbaum (6-4, 205), Leaf's capable backup a year ago, will enter the fall season as WSU's number one quarterback, although he will miss spring drills after having his knee scoped in January. Returnees Paul Mencke (sophomore, 6-5, 229) and Sam Baurichter (freshman, 6-6, 204) will benefit from Birnbaum's absence in spring drills, as will junior college transfer Bryan Paul (junior, 6-3, 195). In the fall, highly regarded freshman Jason Gesser (6-2, 195) will begin battling for playing time.
WSU HONOR CANDIDATES
All-American: DT Gary Holmes, PK Rian Lindell, WR Nian Taylor, FS Lamont Thompson.
All-Pac-10 Offense: OT Rob Rainville, TE Love Jefferson, PK Rian Lindell, WR Nian Taylor.
All-Pac-10 Defense: LB Steve Gleason, DT Gary Holmes, CB Dee Moronkola, FS Lamont Thompson.
The candidates to replace Michael Black in WSU's one-back offense are many and include last year's number two back, DeJuan Gilmore (junior, 5-8, 204), plus Adam Hawkins (sophomore, 5-11, 201) and Miguel Meriwether (senior 6-0, 208). However, the one back everyone wants to see is junior college All-American transfer Kevin Brown (sophomore, 6-3, 220), who joins the team in the fall out of San Francisco CC. Brown rushed for over 1,700 yards last year and scored 20 touchdowns in 10 games.
All-American candidate Nian Taylor (senior, 6-2, 200) heads the list of receivers who return for the Cougars. Last season Taylor had three starts and caught 22 passes for 570 yards (25.9 average) and six touchdowns. Price has suggested the Cougars will run fewer four-receiver routes next year, taking advantage of Jefferson's experience at tight end. Jefferson caught 15 passes for 185 yards and two scores in 1997.
Alexe Rodopolos (junior, 6-3, 200), a transfer from Iowa, is expected to challenge for a starting spot in the spring, while in the fall several newcomers will be given serious consideration, especially transfer Leaford Hackett (junior, 5-9, 180) from Los Angeles Valley College. Incoming freshmen DeAndre Douglas (6-2, 180) and Tim Lemon (6-2, 175) are rated two of WSU's best recruits and will get a chance early to show their stuff.
WSU's schedule, according to Price, is ideal for a young team. "We will be competitive in our first three non-conference games, which will give us time to gain some experience before taking on the rigers of the Pac-10 season."
WSU opens the year at home hosting Illinois Sept. 5, then travels to Boise State before returning home to take on cross-border rival Idaho. WSU's Pac-10 games include home contests against Oregon, USC, ASU and Washington. On the road, WSU will take on California, UCLA, Arizona and Stanford.