SPRING RECAP Part II: Offense heats up

SEAN O'CONNOR

PULLMAN -- The curtain call Saturday, Jason Hill's athletic, zig-zagging touchdown romp following an Alex Brink pass, typified the Cougs' spring and provided a snapshot of what could be to come -- an offensively heavy team with the ability to make big plays fast. The session saw the emergence of plenty of targets for Brink, although the running game could be less likely to have the same impact as last year with the departure of an All-American who cut Pac-10 defenses to ribbons.

DeMaundray Woolridge and company will nonetheless do their part absent future NFL back Jerome Harrison to keep the enemy honest once the leaves turn brown in Pullman.

Taking nothing away from Hill during his highlight reel catch and run, but from high in the press box a separate picture came into focus, one of an offense working in sync. Versatile tight end Jed Collins, who had a solid scrimmage and an even better spring, along with receiver Brandon Gibson, both lead the way for Hill. The pair put the blocks on a defense hell-bent on putting rumors of weakness, ones that plagued the unit after last season's breakdowns, to rest.

The offensive unity ushering Hill to the house Saturday physically echoed what many players have said all spring -- the team not only has the heart and desire for the Cougs to go bowling, but the skill and attention to detail as well.

LEADING THE CHARGE will be an aerial attack that could challenge anyone out west in terms of talent and depth.

In addition to Hill and Gibson, who had the catch of the spring in 11-on-11 drills early in the session laying out for a Brink pass in the end zone, the Cougs return playmaking junior Michael Bumpus and senior Chris Jordan, and welcome quality spring performers in freshman Greg Walker, sophomores Scott Selby and Benny Ward, and JC transfer Finas Rabb III, who's mere presence at 6-6 spells instant red-zone for Bill Doba's squad this fall.

AT QUARTERBACK, VETERAN Alex Brink, looked confident and was especially productive in the spring's latter half.

Despite operating under duress much of the session, Brink in limited duty over four scrimmages was 26-of-47 for 319 yards and four TDs with one INT. The other weapon in the elusive Brink's arsenal -- his feet, which coach Timm Rosenbach believes will pay dividends in '06.

The backup role is Gary Rogers', a strong armed sophomore tree-topper at 6-foot-5 who saw his first game action in '05. Rogers showed flashes, but lacked consistency during the session. Still, his performance was enough to inspire confidence from Rosenbach, and Rogers' potential was easily seen during spring ball.

Cole Morgan and Arkelon Hall showed they're freshmen with talent, but work remains on reads, progressions and just getting comfortable within the framework of the Cougar offense. Right now, it's a thinking game for the duo, but both showed improved decision making as the session wore on. The pair combined to toss four touchdowns (Hall, 3; Morgan 1) in the scrimmages.

IN ADDITION TO being stacked at wideout, WSU developed another deep squad this spring -- at tight end.

From a sideline view at least, possibly the best offensive spring performances belonged to Collins, a junior, and "Touchdown" Tony Thompson, a freshman who consistently made impressive catches in addition to emerging as the long snapper. And that's before considering the starter at TE, senior Cody Boyd.

Boyd missed the spring to injury but when healthy, the athletic 6-8, 255-pound Ferndale native is a significant match up problem for any defense. Then there's Jesse Taylor, a battle tested senior who, too, missed most of the spring with a stinger, junior Jason Price, and sophomores Bryan Baird and Ben Woodard. Each of them, with the exception of the injured Boyd, put in solid performances this spring.

The position is so deep, in fact, that instead of burying an athletic sophomore Jacob McKinney at the position, the Cougar offense instead looks to have moved him to offensive line, where it appears he will play second-string guard or tackle.

ALTHOUGH THE PASSING game will be expected to produce big in '06, the state of the ground game appears a little less crystallized. The squad is deep but young, and the numbers during the scrimmages were less than scintillating. The group boasts no seniors and only one junior in Kevin McCall.

Still, projected starter, sophomore DeMaundray Woolridge, appeared confident running behind his offensive line, and he should only get better through the coming summer and fall months. Dwight Tardy showed a knack for getting the tough yard. And the corps is expecting an infusion of five rookies this fall -- JC transfers Darryl Hutsona and J.T. Diederichs, Skylar Jessen, Chris Ivory and Marcus Richmond.

BUT AN OFFENSE is only as good as the big guys up front, and despite three returning starters (Bobby Byrd, Sean O'Connor, Charles Harris) and the emergence of a number of players this spring, key injuries gave evidence that depth could be thin.

Early in the spring, the offensive line seemed to collapse often under pressure. Whether this was because of the stand-up play of a D-line or because the offense suffered key injuries is unclear. Freshman Kenny Alfred (hand), Joe Eppele (foot), Dan Rowlands (shoulder), and Colin Donovan (hand) all went down this spring. Rowlands and Alfred were both expected to challenge for starting roles that have for now been claimed by senior Josh Duin and freshman Andy Roof.

What was apparent was the offense did not consistently give the Cougar QBs enough time or open enough holes for the backs to get through the box.

It's also worth noting spring ball, rightly, does not allow the offense any leeway concerning cut blocks -- an effective, albeit sometimes injury-inducing aspect of the game pertinent to an O-line's success.

DESPITE THESE BARRIERS, the offensive line still saw moments of glory this spring, just not consistently enough to please the Cougar coaches. Often creating said moments of glory was O'Connor, who quietly put together a very effective spring at left guard.

O'Connor spent the spring laying out effective blocks. The senior's willingness to follow through on a play after it left the line was readily apparent, with O'Connor frequently leading the charge downfield, hoping to run the interference and spring the big gainer.

If the offense truly hopes to be as effective as it can be come this fall, it will need this stand-up play from linemen like O'Connor and to also develop a measure of the cohesiveness exhibited by the '05 group.

Ultimately, an offense that put up big numbers in 2005 appears to have the potential to become an even greater threat this season, combining a truly impressive air attack with what appears to be, at worst, a solid running game and, if healthy, an effective offensive line.

Editor's note: Cody Glad and Kari Hockett covered every Washington State practice for CF.C this spring. The crack reporting team filed insightful, timely dispatches along with breaking news, all while providing an in-depth perspective on Cougar Football not seen elsewhere. Our hats are off to them.

CHAT: Mark your calendars for this upcoming Wednesday, April 26, at 7 p.m. PT when Jeff McQuarrie, producer and director of an upcoming new 4-hour documentary on the colorful history Cougar Football scheduled for release later this year, will be answering questions in the CF.C chat room. McQuarrie has been working on the film for several years and along the way has talked to a Who's Who from the Cougar Nation including Keith Jackson, Drew Bledsoe, Marcus Trufant, Mike Utley, Steve Gleason and many, many more. Head to Legends of the Palouse for more info.

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