How high can Cougar hosses jump in '11?

SEATTLE — Three players who started several games along Washington State's offensive line in 2010 were prospects making recruiting trips a little more than a year ago. That inexperience often showed as the Cougars' stable of hosses arguably was the weakest unit on a team that finished with a 2-10 record.

Two statistics highlight the difficulties that the OL had:

  • 51 sacks allowed, and
  • 2.62 yards per rush.

    Both ranked 119th among 120 Football Bowl Subdivision programs.

    "Every week that offensive line faced someone one to two years older," WSU offensive line coach Steve Morton recently told Cougfan.com. "We saw a lot of juniors and seniors."

    Among the 10 teams in the nation that finished with the most sacks allowed, only one — Northwestern — finished with a winning record (7-6). And the nine teams that rushed for fewer than three yards per carry had an average record of 2-10.

    "Trust me, I don't where we were ranked on anything," Morton said.

    Morton, who previously coached at Stanford, USC, Washington and WSU in the 1980s, enters the second season of his latest tenure on the Palouse. Morton served as an assistant under former WSU coach Jim Walden from 1978-86, where he mentored All-American Dan Lynch, one of five Morris Trophy winners he has guided during his career.

    When he begins assessing the offensive line, it starts with David Gonzales and Wade Jacobson, who started last season at left tackle and left guard, respectively. Morton said he can relate because he came to the Cougars as a JC transfer from Grays Harbor College in 1973.

    Both signed in December 2009, but the spring semester at WSU does not start until the second week of January. That means this is the first full offseason of weight training for both, said Morton.

    "The biggest gains are being made right now in their first true offseason," Morton said.

    BUT IT WAS not just the physical aspect of the transition that proved challenging for both. Wulff initially planned to redshirt Gonzales. Instead, he started the first seven games at what universally is considered the most important position on the offensive line (left tackle) before a broken forearm on Oct. 16 against Arizona ended his season. Jacobson said he never played guard before last season and added that center Zack Williams, who has graduated, was more comfortable at the position. Williams' snaps at times had a low trajectory, enough that Wulff called it a significant issue at one point during the season.

    "We just threw a bunch of guys together for one season," Jacobson said.

    In addition, North Mason High School graduate John Fullington started the final five games of the year at left tackle. Morton said Fullington is one of only three true freshmen who have started for him in 36 seasons of coaching.

    "You're going from a (Class) 2A high school to Pac-10 football," he said. "That's a quantum leap."

    Gonzales and Jacobson had more experience than Fullington playing in the junior-college ranks, but that did not mean the transition was easy.

    "It was an eye-opener," Jacobson said. "I saw some good speed in junior college, but it doesn't compare to the Pac-10."

    As a comparison, Oregon started three seniors and a junior along the offensive line as it played for the national championship. The Ducks' youngest starter, Carson York of Coeur'd Alene, was a redshirt sophomore. Stanford, which won the Orange Bowl, had a similar veteran presence on the offensive line.

    But inexperience no longer should be an issue for the Cougars. Fullington, Gonzales, Jacobson and right guard B.J. Guerra, who will be a senior, all return.

    "We expect those guys — and they should — to take a big leap in their performance," said Paul Wulff, a four year starting lineman for the Cougars from 1986-89.

    Morton agreed.

    "There should be a tremendous amount of growth," he said.

    THE GUARD POSITIONS would appear set with Guerra and Jacobson, who remained at guard after Gonzales' injury. Wulff considered shifting him to left tackle before moving Fullington, who previously played right tackle along with since-graduated Micah Hannam. Jacobson said Gonzales' superior athleticism is better suited to tackle, while his physicality makes him a strong guard.

    "You can't be a nice guy," Jacobson said. "You can't be a big softy. You can't take crap from anybody. I love to play hard and I love to hit people."

    Guerra, a Moses Lake product who has started at least five games in each of the last three seasons, is the most experienced player on the line.

    "B.J. had a solid year," Morton said. "I expect a whole lot more out of him."

    Fullington and Gonzales project as starters at the tackle positions. Morton said if and where they start will be determined during practices.

    The position that appears most unsettled is center. Tim Hodgdon and Andrew Roxas figured to battle junior-college transfers Matt Goetz and Taylor Meighen for that position, but Morton would not rule out an unnamed freshman, presumably Portland's Alex Mitchell, competing for the starting position. He said Sebastian Valenzuela could also vie for that spot, but feels he is better suited to play guard.

    Roxas has the most experience — he started once for the injured Kenny Alfred at center as a true freshman in 2007 against UCLA and excelled — but Morton also noted that Goetz is not a traditional junior-college transfer because he redshirted in 2009 at Texas Tech before playing last year at Navarro College in Texas.

    Regardless, Morton is happy that he simply will have more depth. Dan Spitz, who missed last season after tearing his right-shoulder labrum, Tyson Pencer, Alex Reitnouer and Shadle Park graduate Jake Rodgers all play tackle. Valenzuela and any of the potential starters at center also can play guard.

    "I think the biggest thing we have to do is create competition," Morton said. "We're in a lot better shape to have the competition start now than we were a year ago."

    And it begins now.

    "This is going to be just an absolute crucial time for everybody," Morton said. "It's crucial for everyone to get their bodies as big and strong as they can."

    Jacobson is confident the ongoing work will matriculate to the gridiron this fall.

    "We're going to be moving the ball a lot," he said. "With the five guys we have returning ... those guys have been out there and are leaders."

    NOTABLE NOTE:

  • For a second consecutive year, former WSU wide receiver Devard Darling was credited with informing the coaching staff about a recruit. Last year, it was Florida linebacker C.J. Mizell. This time, Morton said, Darling, a standout wide receiver for the Cougars in 2002-03, informed the staff about Navarro College product Rico Forbes. Both Darling and Forbes were born in the Bahamas before moving to Texas and as chronicled earlier on CF.C, they are close friends.

    Both Morton and Wulff have maintained that Forbes is slated to redshirt this season. Morton said that is because he feels Forbes' upside presents a situation where he could have two outstanding seasons instead of just one as he continues to develop.

    "When you look at it five years ago, football to him was soccer," Morton said.

    Morton said he has seen limited footage of the 6-foot-4, 280-pound Forbes, but that was enough.

    "He's so athletic," he said. "I watched him on some tape ... and you just go, ‘Wow, that guy is a great athlete.' "

    Perhaps just as important, Morton said Forbes is coachable.

    "He's heart-attack serious about getting things done the right way," he said.

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