Last-place predictions motivate Cougars

Increase in team speed could be key for WSU this year

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5 QUESTIONS FACING THE COUGARS

1) Can the offense move the ball?

WSU could open the season starting a sophomore quarterback (Jeff Tuel) with five college starts, a senior running back (James Montgomery) with no college starts and an offensive line with junior college transfers (Wade Jacobson and David Gonzales) manning both tackle positions.

2) Can the defense stop anybody?

The Cougars are bigger, stronger, faster and more experienced than a year ago, but they have a ways to go in all those areas. Defensive tackle Brandon Rankin, a pass-rushing phenom as a JC defensive end two years ago, was often dominant in spring drills after redshirting last season due to academic ineligibility.

3) Do the Cougars have enough leaders?

The Cougars have 20 seniors, but nine are transfers, two are walk-ons and at least three will play only on special teams. A slow start will create more calls for the head of Paul Wulff.

4) Can the Cougars stay healthy?

The rebuilding Cougars’ slim chances for success the past two years were doomed by an endless series of injuries to starters and top reserves. Now that the team is making significant progress in the weight room, coaches hope that injuries can be drastically reduced to help cover for a lack of depth.

5) Can the Cougars at least gain some respect?

Opponents routinely praised the Cougars last season for displaying far more pride and grit than the year before. That said, it will be difficult to keep spirits high if the Cougars are again outscored 176-6 in first quarters and 308-50 in first halves, as was the case last year.

— Howie Stalwick

PULLMAN — Washington State has lost more football games the past two years than any other team in Pac-10 history, so Cougar quarterback Jeff Tuel said he’s not the least bit surprised WSU is the overwhelming preseason “favorite” to finish last in the Pac-10 for the second straight year.

“The performance that we’ve had the last two years, we deserve to be last,” Tuel said after the team’s third fall practice concluded Tuesday afternoon. “We didn’t give anybody any reason to believe that we were anything but the bottom.”

Tuel, of course, can’t wait to prove the preseason naysayers wrong.

“That’s just food; we’re hungry,” Tuel said. “It’s motivation.

“Nothing else matters but what we believe in our hearts and minds, and what we know we can do.

“We’re going to win games, and we’re going to surprise people.”

The Cougars are still lacking in team speed, strength, depth and experience, but they’ve improved markedly in all three areas after going 1-11 last season (0-9 Pac-10). The increased speed has drawn plenty of comments from players, coaches and fans at fall camp.

“It makes a huge difference,” said Tuel, who started five games as a true freshman last year before going down with a knee injury.

Paul Wulff, 3-22 after two years as coach at his alma mater, has repeatedly said the Cougars need more “playmakers” — players who can big plays at key times.

Early returns indicate the Cougars have found three such players in new receivers Isiah Barton, Marquess Wilson and Kristoff Williams. The latter two are freshmen, and they provide much-needed speed and athleticism along with Barton, a junior college transfer.

“Obviously, it’s a big upgrade from where we’ve been,” Wulff said.

“These freshmen we’ve got,” Tuel said, “half of them, you throw it in an area, it comes out of your hand, you’re like, ‘Oh, it might be a little high. Uh-oh!’ Then one of them swallows it up.”

For two straight years, the rebuilding Cougars have ranked among the worst teams in the nation on offense and defense. Last year’s team averaged just 12 points and 248.6 total yards per game on offense while giving up 38.5 points and 512 yards to opponents.

The Cougars are counting on athletic defensive tackle Brandon Rankin, a former JC All-American, to help stuff the run and pressure the quarterback. The defensive backfield has gained speed and depth, and 2009 tackles leader Alex Hoffman-Ellis has moved from middle linebacker to outside ’backer to take advantage of his impressive speed.

Extra points

• Wulff said junior linebacker Louis Bland, a possible starter, may need to redshirt due to off-season knee surgery.

• WSU opens the season Sept. 4 at Oklahoma State. The home opener is Sept. 11 against Montana State.

• The Cougars are struggling to match last year’s season ticket sales, which barely topped 9,000.

• Former WSU and Seattle Seahawks star Chad Eaton is working with the defensive line as a graduate assistant coach.

• New Cougar athletic director Bill Moos said he tentatively plans to play a “home” game against Oregon or Oregon State every year at Qwest Field in Seattle. The majority of WSU alums live in Western Washington, and the eight Cougar games held at Qwest have all drawn bigger crowds than WSU’s Martin Stadium can hold. The Cougars do not play in Seattle this year.