Wagner waited years and now ready to shine

DAN WAGNER may be the happiest guy on the field Monday when Washington State opens its spring football season. For the first time since walking on in 2007, this jack-of-all-trades from Portland has a shot at serious playing time. He comes in as the favorite to succeed Reid Forrest as the Cougars' punter.

The job won't be handed to him, though. Junior Alex Gauper, a walk on from Spokane, figures to get a look at punter and placekicker. So might Zach Sampson, a former all-area punter and kicker from North Kitsap High who enrolled at WSU in January after spending this past fall at Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College. He will be walking ON at WSU this week, the Kitsap Sun reports.

In addition, come August, there might be Tana Pritchard to contend with. He's the uber-athletic incoming linebacker/safety from Clover Park High who moonlighted this past fall as an all-classifications all-state punter. Paul Wulff hasn't ruled out giving this hard-hitting prospect a chance to punt.

"I think competition is good," says Dan Wagner, a 6-0, 207-pound fifth-year senior. "It makes me work hard and it brings out the best. I'm confident in myself and that I can perform at the level they need."

If perseverance is a plus, Wagner has it in spades. After starring at quarterback and punter at Jesuit High in Portland, he walked on at WSU and has toiled at both positions ever since (though his QB days look numbered -- the latest depth chart goes five deep and he's not listed).

The patience hasn't been without its brief rewards. Wagner saw action in 2008 when Forrest was dinged up for the season opener in Seattle against Oklahoma State. Wagner punted eight times in that game for a 39-yard average. He also made an appearance in the 2009 Apple Cup, handing the ball off a few times when Marshall Lobbestael – subbing for the injured Kevin Lopina, who was subbing for the injured Jeff Tuel -- left the game briefly.

Determination is no stranger to Wagner. As a high school junior he suffered a compound leg break and missed the entire campaign. Rigorous rehab and off-season training put him in prime shape for a senior season that turned magical. He led Jesuit High to a 13-0 record and the Oregon Class 6A championship. He passed for 1,900 yards along the way.

While Wagner is primed for his chance to be the No. 1 punter, he says not having Forrest around is bittersweet. "We had a good relationship, I'm going to miss him," Wagner said, noting that the two would give tips to each other and work out together. He traveled to Phoenix a few weeks back, where Forrest is preparing for a shot at the NFL, to get a refresher course from his friend. This summer, Wagner will spend time working with Louis Aguiar, a former Kansas City Chief specialist who operates a kicking academy.

Wagner said he's been working on his consistency, flexibility and ball drop, and has tinkered with different styles. The drop of the ball, though, "is a make-or-break to your kick," he said, so he always spends extra time on those mechanics.

Looking ahead to his final season on the Palouse, Wagner believes the long-term vision of his head coach will be rewarded with a bowl game. He hopes to be right in the middle of it all, of course, but says whether he's first-string or not, he's come away with a tremendous experience being in the Cougar family. "Being from Portland, you see lots of Duck and Beaver fans but it's a special thing when you get people coming up to you and saying ‘Go Cougs' when I have my WSU stuff on. Being a Coug has meant a lot."


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