NOTEBOOK: Leader Kooyman focused on run stop

PULLMAN -- Kevin Kooyman is 6-foot-6 and wildly athletic, but that's not why the Cougar defensive end from Maple Valley sticks out in a crowd. He's a wily old veteran on a team with precious few of them. And he's emerging as one of Washington State's true team leaders through his workmanlike approach to the game.

"He brings to the table maturity," says Chris Ball, WSU's assistant head coach and co-defensive cooridnator. "You can never get enough of those fifth-year guys, especially if they're good players.

Kevin Kooyman is one of just four fifth-year seniors on the Cougar roster. Of the 19 high school seniors in WSU's 2006 recruiting class, only Kooyman, starting offensive lineman Micah Hannam, backup running back Marcus Richmond and backup defensive back Anthony Houston are still in the fold. Another classmate, Andy Mattingly, played as a true freshman so exhausted his eligibility in four years and is now off to try his hand as an NFL free agent.

"He's got a good all-around game, and he's done a really good job for us, probably more so than anything leadership-wise. He's really stepped up as a leader, just by example," Ball says of Kooyman. "He works hard. He's up here (at the football facilities and offices) all the time. He understands the positions, so he helps coach the younger guys. He's not much of a vocal guy, but he does a great job by leading by example."

That dedication to his work is one reason why The Seattle Times in 2006 dubbed Kooyman one of the "finest three-sport athletes in the state." Indeed, his career at Tahoma High south of Seattle was storybook. He earned All-State honors in football, was a state champion in wrestling, and an all-everything performer in track and field. All the while, he maintained a 3.95 GPA.

PRIOR TO LAST SEASON, Ball was named by The Sporting News magazine as the best position coach in the Pac-10. The fact that Washington State went on to finish last in the nation in defense tells you all you need to know about the injuries, talent level and youth Ball was coaching.

Indeed, injuries and lack of speed, depth and experience doomed the Cougars on both sides of the ball last year. Ball, who also serves as safeties coach, came away from spring practice convinced the 2010 Cougars will be much better on defense.

"We're definitely improved," Ball said after spring ball concluded Monday with a spirited 6 a.m. workout. "We're definitely stronger and faster. I think the kids have a good understanding of the defense, which helps, and they're playing with a lot more confidence."

Part of the reason for Ball's optimism is the return of Kooyman, who is slotted to start at defensive end opposite Travis Long. Kooyman missed all but the opening game last year with a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Like Mattingly, he was thrust into playing time as a true freshman in 2006, so he had a redshirt to burn.

And now he's a major cog in what looks to be a major turning point for the program.

Kooyman, never one to make outrageous public statements, said the Cougars "definitely" have a shot at a bowl game in 2010.

"We've had a lot of enthusiasm," Kooyman said. "We've lacked that in past years.

"We've got to come out with fire. Last year, we'd just get down in the beginning of games and let them take over.

"Now, it's a completely different game for us. Coaches are focusing on the intensity, making sure you turn it up at the beginning of practice and not wait for someone to do something. You know -- install your own motor and just get yourself pumped."

Kooyman is being asked to focus more on stopping the run than pass rushing, which is a change from previous years.

"It's kind of put me in a position to focus more on the run and on the back side of plays," Kooyman said. "There's still opportunities to get a pass rush, but it's definitely a different thing, and I've got the hang of it pretty well."

"We still like his pass rush," Ball said. "He's a great pass rusher."

Part of the reason for Kooyman's new role is the arrival of junior college All-American Brandon Rankin, a tackle with impressive pass-rushing skills.

"Rankin is a great player," Kooyman said. "He's going to be a great asset on our defensive line.

"He's athletic, he's big, he's strong. He's just going to be a great addition."

Watching Rankin up close and personal seems to have eased Kooyman's angst over not getting to pressure the quarterback as much as he would like.

"Sacks are the best play in football," Kooyman said with a smile. "I just love getting those."

Kooyman values wins even more than sacks, of course, and he seems confident there will not be a repeat of last year's 1-11 debacle.

"I'm not really going to put a number out there (for predicted wins), but I can say a great improvement on last year," Kooyman said. "Just because both the offense and defense is looking a lot better, and we've become a team.

"It's not like individuals out there. We've got to be able to trust each other, and I feel this spring, we've made a huge step."

NOTABLE NOTES:
  • The Cougs may lose one d-tackle this offseason to academics but three other players look to be in good shape. The Seattle Times reported on Tuesday that Josh Luapo and Bernard Wolfgramm have considerable academic work to do in order to remain eligible. Sources with knowledge of the situation tell CF.C that Wolfgramm's situation is promising, but Luapo's is considerably pessimistic. In addition, Andre Barrington and Tyson Pencer also have academic work to do, but both are on pace and on target. Some additional Cougar players also have some work to do but among those in that group, they all appear to be in good shape.

  • If Luapo does render himself academically ineligible, the blow figures to be softened by the performance of Rankin this spring, who exceeded lofty expectations and played almost entirely inside at DT, as well as the work done outside on the d-line by, among others, Sekope Kaufusi, whom the Cougs redshirted last year.

  • An official announcement from WSU will likely come later this week on reserve offensive lineman Steven Ayers, who is hanging up the cleats due to concussions.

  • One of Kooyman's 2006 recruiting classmates at WSU, Chris Ivory, just signed a free agent contract with the New Orleans Saints. The running back left WSU before the start of last season following a violation of team rules and transferred to Tiffin University in Ohio. Another old Cougar running back, DeMaundray Woolridge, just signed a free agent deal with the St. Louis Rams. He had a solid career at Idaho after academic hurdles scuttled his WSU tenure. Cougar center Kenny Alfred signed with the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. And Mattingly is expected to sign somewhere soon, with the Chargers and Packers believed among those most interested in him.

  • Bill Moos, Paul Wulff and Ken Bone will be on hand May 13 for the annual King County Cougar Golf Classic at The Golf Club at Newcastle near Bellevue. The aim of the tourney is to raise money for athletic scholarships. The day kicks off with a putting contest at 11 am, followed by lunch, a shot gun start at 12:45, then an auction and dinner. To register, CLICK HERE. To co-sponsor the event, call Todd Thrasher at 206-448-1335.

  • Dave Boling at the Tacoma News Tribune authored a nice piece last week on Ryan Leaf overcoming his addiction to prescription pain killers and his acceptance of his unfortunate place in NFL draft history. CLICK HERE for the story.
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