THE SPRING FOOTBALL season is winding down at Washington State, but fan interest in the program is ramping up if Paul Wulff's online chat with the faithful Thursday morning is any indication. In a wide-ranging discussion, the Cougar head coach talked about James Montgomery's prognosis for the fall, Jeff Tuel's development, fire in the collective belly, and much more.
Inheriting a largely bare cupboard, Wulff orchestrated just three wins over his first two seasons at the helm, prompting one fan to ask whether "that fire in their bellies that leads them to win" is alive and well on the team.
Despite few upperclassmen, Wulff said he likes the attitude of the players. “The competitive fire in our team has improved dramatically. Some of that has to do with us instilling that with the remaining players in the program and recruiting players that have that trait innately,” Wulff said in the chat on wsucougars.com here: http://www.wsucougars.com/chat/040910aaa.html.
To turn the tide of the 3-22 record over the last two years, the Cougars must continued to instill the “physical conditioning, discipline, mental toughness and coaching” that is needed to compete in the Pac-10, Wulff said.
“All of that has to improve together for us to be more successful,” he said. “I wish we could have had all of those issues resolved in a year or two. It’s just not realistic. But they are being resolved as we speak and the results will be evident on the football field over the next three years.”
WSU's offense over the last two years has contributed mightily to the woes in the won-loss column. WSU scored a league-worst 144 points last season. For comparison, the ninth-worst scoring team in the conference, Arizona State, racked up 268 points.
“We plan on being much more consistent and explosive on offense," Wulff said. "We must run the football more effectively for our passing game to become more explosive.”
To that end, Wulff noted that running back James Montgomery, who suffered a devastating leg injury last season in the SMU game, is making great progress and should be back ready to go this fall. Montgomery, a senior-to-be who is not participating in spring ball, was averaging more than 4.5 yards per carry last season before the injury -- an injury that not only could have led to amputation of the leg but was potentially life-threatening.
Wulff said he expects running back to be one of the deepest positions on the team. Besides Montgomery, there will be fellow seniors Marcus Richmond and Chantz Staden, plus junior Logwone Mitz and sophomore Carl Winston. Staden, who also is a talented return man, is back this season after redshirting last year with a knee injury.
The depth scenario is different at wide receiver, where the Cougars have not featured a veteran threat since Brandon Gibson graduated after the 2008 season. One chat room visitor expressed concern to Wulff about the number of balls the wide receivers have dropped this spring.
“We need to continue to practice and spend time on the fundamentals to improve,” Wulff said. “We have several new receivers coming in this fall and the competition will force others to step up their game.”
WULFF, A FOUR-YEAR starting center at WSU in the late 1980s, said he has seen improvement on the offensive line under recently hired position coach Steve Morton.
“Coach Morton has brought a great level of experience and high expectations for our offensive line,” he said. “So far, the players are working very hard and all of them are showing excellent signs of improvement.”
WULFF, WHEN ASKED IF junior Marshall Lobbestael has a chance to unseat presumptive starter Jeff Tuel as the main man behind center, wouldn't bite. He said the competition is open.
In two scrimmages this spring, the two QBs have put up similar numbers. Tuel has completed 14 of 25 passes for 168 yards, two TDs and one INT, while Lobbestael has completed 13 of 21 for 138 yards, two TDs and two INTs.
Last season, as a true freshman, Tuel took over the starting spot and completed 71 of 121 passes for 789 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions. One fan asked Wulff how Tuel compares with some of the standout quarterbacks Wulff coached at Eastern Washington.
“Jeff did not have the luxury to redshirt like past quarterbacks that I coached,” Wulff said. “But from an age standpoint – based on his playing experience – he is progressing very well. Marshall continues to improve and our hope is that we have two quarterbacks that can lead us to victories.”
AS FOR THE COUGAR D, Wulff said he likes what he's seen this spring. “Our defense is playing with more confidence, and playing faster and more physical, than they have (during) our short time here,” he said.
But Wulff also cited the number of freshmen who redshirted last season as a reason why the defense should improve. But he also cautioned that those players, such as defensive backs Jamal Atofau, Anthony Carpenter and Nolan Washington, still are inexperienced.
“They are all good prospects,” Wulff said. “They still need to gain experience, strength and knowledge of the game before they are going to be able to reach their ultimate potential.”
Wulff said sophomore corner Daniel Simmons, who was coming on strong last season before going down with a broken leg at mid-season, has the potential to be one of the greats that WSU has produced. He has been crackin' heads this spring.
“Daniel has shown flashes of excellence, but continued growth mentally and physically is a must,” he said. “But I anticipate Daniel has an excellent chance to be one of the fine players here.”
Generally speaking, Wulff pointed out, the team remains awfully young. He said this year’s Cougar squad will be improved, but the 2011 and ’12 versions are likely to be serious contenders.
“Be patient,” he said. “Cougar football will be back and playing very well again in the near future.”
Without mentioning names, Wulff expressed concern that some players might fall academically ineligible when all is said and done on this school year.
Asked if some of his incoming freshmen will contend for immediate playing time this fall, Wulff didn't offer specifics but said "we anticipate a couple of receivers, running backs, defensive backs, and possibly tight ends to contribute."
The Cougars will play the annual Crimson & Gray game this Saturday at Martin Stadium, with kickoff at 5:30 pm. The game will cap an eventful day in Pullman. The festivities begin at 10 a.m. with the Cougar Invitational at Mooberry Track. From Noon to 2, there will be a Cougar Tailgate Party in the Hollingbery Fieldhouse. The baseball team then hosts Oregon State at Bailey-Brayton Field at 2 p.m., with the football team signing the new 2010 Cougar football schedule posters from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.
The Crimson & Gray scrimmage typically marks the end of spring ball. But not this year. The Cougs will be out early Monday morning for one final practice before calling it quits.