Previewing the 2006 Cougar offense

PULLMAN – Washington State, fueled by 49 returning lettermen and a host of starters on offense, is poised to turn the series of close losses that marked 2005 into victories in 2006. The Cougars need to learn to "finish," says head coach Bill Doba. If they do, they'll return to the bowl scene for the fourth time in the last six years.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Cougars lost three players to the NFL, including consensus All-American running back Jerome Harrison, but plenty of experienced talent is back.

Last season the Cougars averaged more than 489 yards of total offense per game – third-best in the Pac-10. A key to that success was a talented offensive line that used one lineup for all 11 games. Three of those players return, led by seniors Charles Harris (6-6, 323) and Sean O'Connor (6-6, 281), along with junior Bobby Byrd (6-7, 312).

The left side of the line is anchored by Byrd at tackle and O'Connor at guard. Byrd started nine games as a freshman and all 11 last season, while O'Connor moved into the starting lineup at the beginning of 2005 and hasn't left. The two combined to protect quarterback Alex Brink's blindside and helped WSU lead the Pac-10 in fewest sacks allowed (18) in 2005.

Harris will hold down the right tackle position, as he did for all 11 games last season. After injuries held him back his first two seasons, 2005 saw Harris healthy and that helped Harrison to a school-record 1,900 rushing yards. Redshirt sophomore Andy Roof (6-4, 303) is expected to fill the right guard spot alongside Harris. Roof emerged as the starter following a strong spring after spending the 2005 season backing up Harris at tackle.

The key to then offensive line will be finding a replacement for departed Nick Mihlhauser, who signed with the San Diego Chargers as a free agent. Redshirt freshman Kenny Alfred (6-2, 285), redshirt senior Josh Duin (6-4, 318) and redshirt sophomore Dan Rowlands (6-5, 283), all will battle for playing time. Duin backed up Mihlhauser last season and has the most playing experience of the trio, while Rowlands is learning a new position after backing up Norvell Holmes at the right guard spot last season. Alfred is a talented player who used 2005 as his redshirt season.

In the Cougar backfield the running game will begin with sophomore DeMaundray Woolridge (5-8, 234). Replacing Harrison, a fifth-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns, will not be an easy task but Woolridge showed flashes of what lies ahead as he rushed for 312 yards on 52 carries last season, a 6.0 average. In just his second game last season, he went for a season-high 133 yards and a touchdown at Nevada then followed that performance with 105 yards against Grambling.

While Harrison was a darting runner, patiently picking his holes, Woolridge is a straight-ahead, power runner, though he does have the speed to break one as evident by his 70-yard dash to the end zone against Nevada.

Also finding time in the Cougar backfield will be redshirt junior Kevin McCall (5-11, 214) and redshirt freshman Dwight Tardy (5-11, 208). McCall saw action in just one game last season as he battled through a pair of ankle injuries. Tardy had a great spring and gives WSU a trio of young, talented backs.

Last season redshirt junior Alex Brink (6-3, 211) emerged from fall practices as the starting quarterback following a battle with Josh Swogger. Both players had started during the 2004 season, with Brink going the final five games for the injured Swogger.

This year there is no doubt Brink will lead the Cougar offense. The Eugene native had the most productive sophomore season ever by a Cougar quarterback, throwing for almost 2,900 yards and 24 touchdowns. In the conference-opener at Oregon State, Brink produced school-records of 515 yards of total offense and 531 passing yards. Both totals rank second and fourth, respectively, in Pac-10 history.

Backing up Brink is a trio of talented young arms, led by redshirt sophomore Gary Rogers (6-6, 232), along with redshirt freshmen Cole Morgan (6-2, 198) and Arkelon Hall (6-1, 203).

For the third straight season Brink will have his favorite target back, senior Jason Hill (6-1, 207). Last season Hill caught 62 passes for 1,097 yards while breaking his own school record with 13 touchdown receptions. He is the first Cougar with back-to-back, 1,000 receiving seasons and his 25 career TD receptions are also a WSU record. An All-Pac-10 second team selection last season, Hill needs 70 receptions and 349 receiving yards to become the Cougars' all-time leader in both categories.

Hill, an All-American candidate, is the leader of a talented receiving corps that also includes senior Chris Jordan (6-1, 205), juniors Michael Bumpus (5-11, 192) and Charles Dillon (6-1, 180), and sophomores Brandon Gibson (6-0, 198) and Benny Ward (6-3, 187). Hill, Bumpus and Jordan have combined for 232 career receptions and 3,605 receiving yards.

Bumpus had 30 catches for 357 yards and two touchdowns in seven games played last season, missing the final four with an ankle injury. The junior doubles as the Cougars punt returner, where he averaged 13.6 yards per return last season, including an 87-yard touchdown return at Nevada. He is the WSU record holder with three punt returns for touchdowns.

Jordan grabbed 12 catches for 129 yards and a touchdown last season as continues to recover from a 2003 knee injury. Gibson made an immediate impact last season, starting five games while making nine catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns.

Ward saw action in all 11 games last season while a member of the special teams unit, while Dillon arrives in Pullman following a standout career at Ventura College, where he set single-season records for catches, yards and touchdowns.

The Cougars are five-deep at the tight end position, led by senior Cody Boyd (6-8, 264). Boyd started the 2005 Apple Cup in place of the injured Troy Bienemann and responded with a season-best five receptions for 65 yards. An excellent blocker and receiver, Boyd finished the year with 14 catches for 169 yards.

Junior Jed Collins (6-2, 243) had a solid spring at tight end after moving from the fullback position, while senior Jesse Taylor (6-3, 250) missed the final four games last season with a shoulder injury. Junior transfer Jason Price (6-4, 230) and sophomore Ben Woodard (6-5, 248) give WSU five quality tight ends, one of the deepest positions on the team.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Handling the kicking duties will be junior Loren Langley (5-8, 153), who connected on 14-of-22 field goals attempts last season, including a season-best 48-yarder against UCLA. Langley has improved his leg strength and should add kickoff duties to his arsenal this season.

Punters Darryl Blunt (6-0, 175) and Fritz Brayton (6-3, 182) battled throughout the spring with Blunt appearing to have the edge heading into this fall. Blunt sat out last season after transferring from Portland State, while Brayton backed up the departed Kyle Basler, who signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Browns.

One position of concern for Doba is finding a long snapper to replace Bienemann, who manned the position for the past three seasons. Redshirt freshman Tony Thompson (6-2, 232) and redshirt sophomore Peter Hill (6-1, 230) took most of the snaps during the spring.

THE SCHEDULE

The 2006 season provides no time to ease into the schedule as the Cougars open at Auburn Sept. 2, in a game televised by ESPN2. In addition to playing all nine Pac-10 teams, WSU faces nonconference foes Idaho Sept. 9 in Pullman and Baylor Sept. 16 at Qwest Field, home of the Seattle Seahawks.

Conference home games includes defending Pac-10 champion USC Sept. 30, California Oct. 14 for WSU's homecoming, Oregon Oct. 21, Arizona Nov. 4 and concluding with the Apple Cup against Washington Nov. 18 (FSN TV).

The Cougars will be on the road for Pac-10 games at Stanford Sept. 23, Oregon State Oct. 7, UCLA Oct. 28 (ABC TV) and Arizona State Nov. 11.

FROM YESTERDAY'S CF.C FRONT PAGE:

Previewing the Cougar defense

Previewing the Pac-10