WSU in 2010: Special teams and the schedule

THE ONE STATISTICAL category where Washington State led the Pac-10 in 2009 was punting yards. Reid Forrest booted for a league-best 3,718 hashes. That equates to about 2.1 miles – a big number made possible by Forrest's considerable skills and to the fact the Cougar offense couldn't buy a first down. Regardless, facts are facts ...

WSU's special teams in 2010 -- with Forrest back in action at both punter and holder -- return a ton of players who saw a ton of action in 2009. In the final installment of CF.C's three-part preview of the 2010 Cougar football team, here's the compete lowdown on special teams.

Notable losses: Coverage guys Andy Mattingly, Xavier Hicks, Tony Thompson; kickoff return specialist Dwight Tardy; kickoff specialist and backup placekicker Patrick Rooney

Top returnees: Punter and holder Reid Forrest; long snapper Zach Enyeart; kicker Nico Grasu; punt return specialists Jeffrey Solomon and Gino Simone; kickoff return specialists Carl Winston, Johnny Forzani, Marcus Richmond and James Montgomery; coverage players Brandon Jones, Logwone Mitz, Jared Byers, Daniel Blackledge, Hallston Higgins, Easton Johnson and Kyle McCartney

Up-and-comers: Return specialist Chance Staden; kicker Blake Dunn; a large number 2009's redshirt freshmen

Look for:
The Cougar punt team will be in good hands. Enyeart is one of the finest snappers in the nation and Forrest averaged 43.2 yards per punt in 2009, which was third-best in the Pac-10 and 22nd nationally. He booted 18 that were 50 yards or more, and had four of more than 60 yards.

Enyeart and Forrest also represent two-thirds of the centerpiece of the placekicking unit, with the kicker himself -- Grasu -- also returning for his senior season. Grasu is a veteran with solid range but he struggled a bit during an injury-shortened 2009, hitting just 6 of 10 field goals and putting just four kickoffs into touchback territory. Perhaps his miscues were due to rust -- the Cougar offense didn't give him many chances; the per team average in the Pac-10 for field goal attempts was double WSU's.

Keys to the season:
The Cougars' punt and kickoff return teams each ranked last in the Pac-10 in 2009, averaging just 6.9 yards per return on punts and 18.5 yards on kickoffs -- each number way below what opponents averaged. Except for Dwight Tardy, who returned 13 kicks for 257 yards in 2009, everybody who fielded punt and kickoff returns will be back in 2010. What those ball carriers need is for the guys up front to open some lanes for them. That effort should get a big boost from the infusion of speed and athleticism the Cougars will be getting from their touted freshmen who redshirted in 2009. On the flip side of the equation, that infusion of young athletes also figures to boost the Cougars' containment of opponents' return teams.

THE SCHEDULE
Coming off a 1-11 campaign, an opener against the likes of Portland State or New Mexico State would be just the ticket to build a little confidence. Instead, the Cougs instead are hitting the road for a Sept. 4 tilt against Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were 9-3 in 2009 and the runner-up to mighty Texas in the Big 12 southern division. They finished the regular season ranked in the Top 25. The Cougs will return home in Week 2 to take on a more manageable Montana State of the Big Sky Conference before heading back south for a rematch in Dallas with SMU. The Mustangs provided WSU its only win in 2009 with a fourth-quarter collapse in Pullman, but they wound up winning seven games this season and will play Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl — SMU's first bowl game in 25 years.

The Pac-10 schedule doesn't look to have any breathers along the way, particularly with so many veteran quarterbacks coming back. Coming to Martin Stadium will be Arizona, USC, Oregon, Cal and Washington, with the Apple Cup held after Thanksgiving on Dec. 4. Except for Washington, all of those teams are going bowling this Yuletide. The Cougs will hit the road to play Stanford, UCLA, Arizona State and Oregon State. Except for ASU, all of those teams are going bowling this season, too.* (*assuming UCLA on Saturday gets the invite to the Eagle Bank Bowl)

Right now, and until the Cougs prove otherwise in 2010, it's pretty clear the '10 Cougars would be a favorite in just one game – Montana State. The underdog mentality that Tony Bennett's basketball teams so embraced might need to be bronzed and embroidered on the Cougars' football uniforms.

In case you missed the first two installments in our three-part series looking ahead to next football season, click the links below for perspectives on the offense and defense ...

Previewing the 2010 Cougar defense

Sizing up the offense: Cougar outlook 2010

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