April 2, 2002
PULLMAN, Wash. - WSU opened spring drills April 2 and will conclude the 15 workouts with the annual Spring Football Game April 27 at 2:00 p.m. in Martin Stadium. The Cougars practice each Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Scrimmages are slated for each Saturday morning. The following is a preliminary WSU outlook, followed by comments from Mike Price.
"It's what's up front that counts" might well be the theme of Washington State University's 2002 Cougar football team, but the returning talent from last year's 10-2 Sun Bowl winner is far from being limited to those who play on the offensive and defensive lines.
Mike Price, the Pacific-10 Conference Coach of the Year last fall and one of three finalists for the Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year award, returns a wealth of talent from the squad that finished ranked tenth nationally and tied for second in last year's hotly contested Pac-10 race.
Price and his staff will build the 2002 team around 45 returning letter winners, 16 seniors, 17 juniors and 12 sophomores. The defense boasts 23 letter winners, the offense 20, plus two kickers. The 14 starters include eight seniors, five juniors and one sophomore. "I think we are going to have better athletes and individual players than we did a year ago, but whether we are a better team is up to the players," Price surmises. "We were a good team last year and that was one of our strengths."
Among the returning veterans are 10 players who earned All-Pac-10 honors a year ago, including first team selections Derrick Roche (offensive tackle) and Drew Dunning (kicker). Jason Gesser (quarterback) and Rien Long (defensive tackle) were named to the league's second team, while honorable mention honors went to D.D. Acholonu (defensive end), Isaac Brown (defensive end), Mike Bush (receiver), Curtis Nettles (return specialist), Josh Parrish (offensive line) and Marcus Trufant (cornerback).
The list of starters back on offense includes Heisman Trophy candidate Gesser (6-1, 200, senior), who last year quarterbacked the fourth best offensive performance in school history. WSU averaged 432.2 yards and amassed 5,187 total yards in 2001.
All-American Candidates: QB Jason Gesser (Heisman Trophy, O'Brien Award, Unital Award, Baugh Award), CB Marcus Trufant (Thorpe Award, Bednarick Award, Nagurski Trophy), OL Derrick Roche (Lombardi Award, Outland Trophy), DT Rien Long (Lombardi Award, Outland Trophy), PK Drew Dunning (Groza Award).
Pac-10 Offense Candidates: WR Mike Bush, OT Josh Parrish.
Pac-10 Defense Candidates: DT Tai Tupai, CB Jason David.
Wide receivers Mike Bush (6-6, 210, senior) and Collin Henderson (6-1, 185, senior) also return, along with four-fifth's of last year's offensive line. The men in the trenches include Roche (6-5, 295, senior) at guard, tackles Parrish (6-6, 318, junior) and Calvin Armstrong (6-8, 315, sophomore) and center Tyler Hunt (6-3, 290, senior). Armstrong was a third team freshman All-American last season and is one of several bright young offensive lineman playing for the Cougars.
And when the Cougar offense comes up short of the goal line, they will once again turn to Dunning (5-11, 165, junior). Last year he scored 101 points, the second highest total ever by a Cougar and a record for kickers. He hit 47 of 51 extra points (two were blocked, two were long-range PATs after penalties) and 18 of 22 field goals (81.8 percent), with a long of 49 yards. The Lou Groza Award semifinalist never missed inside 40 yards, hitting all 16 attempts.
Without a doubt, Gesser will be the key on offense. Last year he was a Davey O'Brien Award semifinalist and one of the top signal callers in the nation. His 3,010 yards passing and 3,111 yards in total offense both rank fourth on the all-time Cougar list. Through the 11-game regular season, he ranked 21st nationally in total offense, 24th in pass efficiency and 15th in points-responsible-for.
In the Pac-10, Gesser lead the league in both passing (248.1 ypg) and total offense (257.5) and was third in efficiency (142.0).
"We think Gesser is one of the premier quarterbacks in the country," offers Price. "As we continue to adjust our offense to his strengths, we will be even more productive next year." The quick-ooted Gesser is on the verge of smashing WSU's career records for total offense and passing, moving ahead of such greats as Jack Thompson, Mark Rypien, Timm Rosenbach, Drew Bledsoe and Ryan Leaf.
Offensive (7): QB Jason Gesser, WR Collin Henderson, WR Mike Bush, OL Tyler Hunt, OL Derrick Roche, OL Josh Parrish, OL Calvin Armstrong.
Defense (5): DE Fred Shavies, DT Rien Long, DT Tai Tupai, CB Marcus Trufant, CB Jason David.
KICKERS (2): PK Drew Dunning, KO Adam Holiday.
With at least 13 games to go, Gesser needs 1,984 total offense yards and 2,397 passing yards to move past Thompson, who holds most WSU quarterback records.
In his last 20 games, Gesser has thrown 42 touchdown passes, leaving him 17 short of Leaf's record 59 scoring throws.
With Bush and Riley, the Cougars have two proven big-play receivers who Price admits played better last season than he expected.
"Mike Bush was a tremendous basketball player, but he had not played football since high school," Price said. "What helped Mike was his competitive nature and his off-season work in the spring and summer.
Riley was a junior college transfer a year ago, but came on much more quickly than even Price predicted. "Jerome is going to be something special. I didn't think he would be as good as he was as soon as he was."
The Cougars will also add Devard Darling, the transfer from Florida State, to their stable of receivers. "Devard is a very gifted athlete who will make our receiving corps even better," Price says.
Offense: OG Joey Hollenbeck, TE Mark Baldwin/Jeremy Thielbahr, WR Nakoa McElrath, RB David Minnich.
Defense: DE Tupo Tuupo, LB James Price, LB Alex Nguae, LB Raonall Smith, SS Billy Newman, FS Lamont Thompson.
KICKERS (1): P Alan Cox.
The Cougar defense is out to improve on several outstanding achievements from a year ago. In 2001, WSU's defense picked off a school record 26 interceptions and notched 40 sacks, including 30 by returning players.
The WSU defense scored eight touchdowns last season, including four by members of this year's club. Corner Jason David returned one of his three interceptions 45 yards for a score in the Sun Bowl, Al Genatone went 73 yards with a fumble return, Jeremy Bohannon recovered a blocked punt for a score and Erik Coleman scored on a 47-yard interception return.
Over on the defensive side, the thought of going to battle next fall with three junior tackles, starters Long (6-6, 187) and Tai Tupai (6-5, 332) and veteran Jeremey Williams (6-5, 285), has Price smiling.
Then again, maybe it is a full blown grin when you add three-year starter Fred Shavies (6-2, 260, senior) at one end position and game-tested juniors Acholonu (6-3, 245) and Brown (6-3, 240) at the other end. No wonder Price thinks this year's defensive front may soon rival the 1995 Palouse Posse front four. Acholonu, incidentally, was the Pac-10 sack leader in 2001 and Brown was right behind him, ranking third in sacks. While neither was a starter last year, they were nonetheless accorded Pac-10 honorable mention honors.
Al Genatone (6-0, 218, junior) is the lone returning starter at linebacker, but the Cougar coaching staff will rely on a pair of junior college transfers and two outstanding second-year players who both saw action as true freshmen in 2001.
The strength of WSU's secondary will be All-America candidate Marcus Trufant (6-0, 189, senior), who many believe was the best cover corner in the conference last year until he missed five games with a broken hand. Opposite Trufant will be starter Jason David (5-9, 165, junior), who had a key interception return for a touchdown in WSU's Sun Bowl win over Purdue last December.
In all, WSU's secondary will boast 14 career interceptions, eight by Trufant and three each by David and Erik Coleman. Trufant already ranks tenth on WSU's career list. "Marcus Trufant is going to be one of the premier corners in the nation," predicts Price. "He is the total package. He is an athlete who can back pedal, jump and tackle. There can't be a better corner in the country."
The positions hardest hit by graduation last season were running back, tight end, linebackers and the secondary.
To shore up those areas, Price and his staff will turn to a combination of junior college and returning reserves.
Among them will be two transfers who enrolled at WSU in January, running back Jermaine Green (6-2, 228, junior) and linebacker Kevin Sperry (6-2, 225, sophomore). Both will have the benefit of spring drills before fall camp opens.
Green joins the Cougars out of Butler Community College in Kansas, where he rushed for 1,010 yards as BCC won the Kansas Jayhawk JCCC title.
"Jermaine has all the stats, the size, the height, the weight, the speed," according to Price. "He has all the statistics you want in a running back, but now we need to see that produce yards on the field."
Sperry attended Los Angeles Harbor CC, where he earned All-State and All-America recognition in just one season. He had 12 sacks last fall and set a team record with 17 tackles in one game.
The Cougars also expect immediate help from five other transfers who join the team in August. They include running backs Jonathon Smith (5-10, 188, junior) from Pasadena CC, and Lionel Arnold (6-1, 205, junior) from Contra Costa CC. Linebacker Donnie Jackson (6-1, 218, junior) from Grossmont CC and Sammy Moore (6-0, 180, junior), a return specialist and receiver from Bakersfield CC, also are expected to contribute in the fall. In addition, tight end Eddie Robinson (6-3, 240, sophomore), who played two years ago at Tulane as a true freshman, will join the Cougars after a year at Compton College. He will enroll as a sophomore.
Robinson will be in a fight for the tight end spot with sophomore Mark Ahlberg (6-5, 255) and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Tim Burnett (6-7, 250) and Adam West (6-6, 235).
The Cougar coaches will look within for a pair of secondary starters. One will be free safety Erik Coleman (5-10, 193, junior), who made five starts for Trufant last season. The other is expected to be strong safety Virgil Williams (6-1, 195, senior). Sophomore Jeremy Bohannon (5-10, 188) and Aaron Joseph (6-2, 207, freshman) are also in contention to replace safeties Billy Newman and Lamont Thompson.
WSU also must find a replacement for departed punter Alan Cox, but Price believes redshirt freshman Kyle Basler is more than ready for the challenge.
One special team area the Cougars won't worry about is kickoffs, thanks to the return of senior Adam Holiday. Holiday put 52 of his 80 kickoffs into the end zone last season, including 35 touchbacks.
The Cougars will tackle a tough 13-game schedule in 2002, including a season-opening non-conference game in Seattle against Nevada. The Cougars and Wolfpack will play in the new Washington State Football/Soccer Stadium, home of the Seattle Seahawks. WSU closes out the regular season at Hawaii the last weekend in December.
"Thirteen games is a punishing, rigorous schedule," says Price. "We have to be smart in how we practice and play games early. Our goal is to be as strong in game 13 as in game one. It will help that we played a lot of guys last year. Many of our younger players have already been on the field.
"One of the things that will play a major role in out performance next season is how hard this team works in the summer," Price believes. "Last year we had leaders on the field and off the field and they made sure we were ready when fall camp opened. If we develop that kind of leadership and work hard in the summer, this team might also be something special." And for the Cougars, something special next fall would be playing in a second consecutive bowl game.
MIKE PRICE TALKS SPRING FOOTBALL . . .
COUGS LOOK FOR CHEMISTRY: "I think we are going to have better athletes and individual players than we did a year ago. Whether we are a better team is up to the players. We were a good team last year and that was one of our strengths. We need to be that kind of team again this year. We need that chemistry, we need the kind of leadership we had last year. I think we are going to be better, but I don't know if we'll win more games. Maybe everyone else is going to be better.
RETENTION A KEY: "There is no question we have talent and depth on our offensive and defensive lines. Yet we are still young. They are not all veterans. The offensive and defensive lines are the strength of the Cougar football team. The big thing is retention of our football players. We must retain the players in the program right now. No one is ineligible next year, everyone does a good job in the classroom, no one gets social probation, everyone keeps their nose clean off the field and is a good citizen. If everyone comes back, then I think we will be a very competitive team. Last year that didn't happen, we lost four kids, and I was surprised we did as well as we did in 2001.
GESSER COULD BE EVEN BETTER: "Jason Gesser is the number one quarterback and Matt Kegel is number two, so identifying who our quarterbacks will be this spring is not a problem for Washington State. Both those guys are winners. We think Jason Gesser is going to be one of the premier quarterbacks in the country. As we continue to adjust our offense to the strengths of Jason Gesser, we will be more productive next year. We need to keep him healthy, teach him how to slide and stay away from contact down the field. There are always going to be plays Jason makes and you catch your breath. He's that kind of player. He says he's been driving coaches nuts since I don't know when.
YOUNG QUARTERBACKS NEED WORK: "I'm really excited to see what Josh Swogger and Chris Hurd will do this spring. Chris is a little ahead of Josh because he has been here for a year. Chris Hurd is also going to make some people take notice of him. Jason was a leader for us last year and he will be this year, but I am looking for some other players to step up and show that leadership. Developing the leadership is a concern of the coaching staff.
LONG SEASON: "Thirteen games is a punishing, rigorous schedule. I have to adjust our schedule accordingly. We have to be smart in how we practice, how we play games early. If we are ahead, we need to pull guys out and give them some rest. Our goal is to be as strong in game 13 as in game one.
HARD WORK IN THE OFF-SEASON NEEDED: "I think playing as many guys last year as we did will help this year. A lot of young guys played last year. We also had the bowl game to prepare for and that meant more practices. If we have a good spring and the players work hard during the summer, we might be able to coast through two-a-days, certainly more than we usually do.
STRONG O-LINE: "We looked at the tapes after the season and now we know why Derrick Roche was selected to the All-Pac-10 team. He played like that. Calvin Armstrong is a brilliant prospect. Josh Parrish is a talented athlete. Tyler Hunt is really a good player. He started every game for us last year. And we have good backups in people like Billy Knotts, Sam Lightbody and Phil Locker. We have great young players and are developing a lot of depth. Two years ago the job (starter) was almost handed to Locker and now he is fighting for playing time.
RECEIVERS A PLUS FOR WSU: "We have two two-sport guys as receivers in Collin Henderson, out for baseball, and Mike Bush, a tremendous basketball player. Those two guys are the hardest working players on the team. With Henderson and Bush and Jerome Riley our receiving depth is wonderful. I think Riley is going to be something special. And now we throw Devard Darling out there. We also have Trandon Harvey, Tom Ostrander and Marty Martin, good young receivers we believe can play for anyone. We have to go with Henderson, Bush, Riley and Curtis Nettles, as they have played well for the Cougs. Riley surprised me last year. I didn't think he would be as good as he was as soon as he was.
RETURN SPECIALIST ADDED TO TEAM: "Sammy Moore is another player to factor in at wide receiver. He's a great return specialist, but he will also play as a receiver if he arrives as scheduled in the fall.
TIGHT END BATTLE WIDE OPEN: "The tight end position is a hole right now, but we know we are going to have a tight end. We have some super candidates - young guys, recruits coming in and redshirts. We are going to go with a two tight ends this spring to help their development. Troy Bienaman, Adam West and Mark Ahlberg will get a lot of chances this spring. We also recruited well to that position.
RUNNING BACKS RETURN: "At running back we have John Tippins and Lavelle Anderson, Alan Thompson and Jimmy Wilson, whom we would like to redshirt if we can. Thompson still has a sore leg, so I don't know how much he will play this spring, but that gives us a nice nucleus of players.
GREEN COULD BE THE REAL DEAL: "We are excited to see what Jermaine Green, who transferred in this semester, can do. This is a guy who has the stats, the size, the height, the weight, the speed. He has all the statistics you want in a running back, but he hasn't played a down for us. Then we have two more players coming in the fall, Lionel Arnold and Jonathan Smith.
NEW PLAYERS NEED SUMMER WORK: "It will help if those guys can all get here in the summer and train with our team. But if they can't, the guys who are here now and train here in the summer have an advantage.
RUNNING BACK DEPTH: "We have not had this much talent at running back in a long, long time. If they are all here, to heck with the tight ends (jokingly), we might use three backs, maybe the wishbone.
THE YOUNG AND THE TALENTED D-LINE: "Our inside players on defense are all young, most of them juniors. Rien Long can be spectacular, Tai Tupai is improving all the time and Jeremey Williams I classify as a starter because he rotates thru all the time. Another is Steve Cook, whom no one knows about.
NO LACK OF DEFENSIVE ENDS: "Outside we have Fred Shavies back on one end and on the other D.D. Acholonu and Isaac Brown. Those two are as good as any team has. They can play. I would rate this line one of the best I've had at WSU.
GENATONE LEADS RETURNING LINEBACKERS: "Linebacker and safety are where you would look at our defense and have some questions. I don't necessarily look at it that way. Just about anyone can play behind that defensive line and have success. Pat Bennett played last year and made great strides. Al Genatone we all know can play in this league. He made big plays for us last year. We moved Ira Davis from safety to linebacker in the middle of last season and he started at Stanford. When he gets an opportunity to learn the defense and train to be a linebacker, and fill out, he has a chance to start. We also thought a lot of Will Derting last year before he got hurt.
NEW LINEBACKERS WILL BE A KEY: "Kevin Sperry will have extremely valuable experience this spring as a middle linebacker. He could have an opportunity to start. Donnie Jackson will be coming here in the fall and he's talented as well. We watched Jonathan Smith last fall and no one in this one game could tackle him, except this one player. I asked our coaches who the other guy was playing against Smith. It was Jackson.
TRUFANT ONE OF THE BEST: "Marcus Trufant is going to be one of the premier corners in the nation. He's a Thorpe Award candidate. He ran every 40-yard dash this spring under 4.5. Plus, he is an athlete who can back pedal, jump and tackle. He is the total package. There can't be a better corner in the country.
DAVID ANOTHER TORY HUNTER: "On the other side is Jason David, a little guy, a character, another Torey Hunter. Hopefully he will make us forget about Torey Hunter. He is an inspirational player who makes big plays. He's fun to be around.
SEARCHING FOR SAFETIES: "The safety positions are question marks. We lost two very good safeties in Lamont Thompson and Billy Newman. Virgil Williams, if he can get his act together, can play there. He is as good an athlete as there can be at that position. It is just a mental thing. He is going to be a senior and it is time for him to get it done. Erik Coleman is going to be as good as the safeties who have left. It comes down to what Virgil does as well as players like Hamza Abdullah, Jeremy Bohannon, and young guys like Aaron Joseph.
WHO SNAPS TO DUNNING: "Boy, is it great to have Drew Dunning back. He was terrific last year. He did an exceptional job. We do need to find a long snapper to go with Drew. We recruited Billy Petrick out of Chicago to do that and we can also use Tyler Hunt for PATs and field goals.
KICKERS WITH STRONG LEGS: "Kyle Bosler looks like the guy to take over for Alan Cox. His leg is as strong as anyone we have had here. He needs to be consistent. We also have Adam Holiday back and he was simply super kicking off for us last year.
THE RETURN GUY: "Sammy Moore, if he is ready in the fall, is exceptional and will be one of the best in the Pac-10. He is a really a gifted athlete, especially as a return specialist.
SPRING GOAL: "This spring we need to find out about our tight ends. We need to develop some of the young wide receivers and we need to determine who the safeties will be, especially the one next to Erik Coleman, and who the backups will be. Our linebackers need to get better. I believe in them, they just need to have more reps. At several positions, like the lines, we know what the veterans can do, but I want to see what some of the younger players and new players can do this spring.