Countdown to Spring: Sizing up special teams

THERE WILL BE a number of questions to answer on offense and defense next month when Mike Leach gets his Cougars on the practice field for the first time, but special teams also figure to offer plenty of intrigue.

Among the pressing questions in the special teams arena as the Cougars head into the March 22 start of spring practices are:

1. Who's the kicker?
Junior-to-be Andrew Furney put up some good numbers in 2011. He connected on 14-16 field goal attempts -- including 7-of-7 on attempts between 30 and 51 yards -- and was 41-of-43 on PATs.

His work on kickoffs, though, was less than head-turning. He had just one touchback in 58 tries and averaged a conference-worst 58.3 yards per kickoff (a number, albeit, dampened by WSU's occasional call for a squib). Furney's understudy, Alex Gauper, had no touchbacks in 12 kickoffs.

Enter JC transfer and former Oregon Duck Mike Bowlin, who arrived on campus in January. This past season at Saddleback JC he connected on 11-of-15 field goal attempts, and dialed up an impressive 14 touchbacks on kickoffs. He averaged 64.1 yards per kickoff.

The Cougars' coverage on kickoffs last season at times prompted then-special teams coach Dave Ungerer to call for squibs in kickoffs. Generally speaking, the results were poor, with opponents gaining favorable starting positions time after time.

Has Furney improved his distance and hang time on kickoffs over the course of this offseason? Or is Bowlin the answer on kickoffs? Is Bowlin ready to challenge Furney not only as the kickoff specialist, but also as the field goal kicker? All good questions that will be percolating when spring drills begin March 22.

2. Who's the punter?
Dan Wagner, who ranked 55th nationally last season at 40.8 yards per punt, has graduated. No one else punted last season for the Cougars, leading to one big bowl of punter question marks headed into spring.

Tyler McNannay out of Colfax High redshirted for the Cougs this past season and could be the heir apparent. He was an all-state kicker, punter and running back in high school. Gauper, who has only served as kicker at WSU, also could be in the mix. He was a standout punter at Lewis and Clark High in Spokane, and was Wagner's backup last season.

The frontrunner for long snapping duties would be senior-to-be Zach Koepp, who handled the role all last season. Sophomore-to-be Alex Den Bleyker, who filled in ably for Koepp late last year, could make a move. Ryan Saparto, who came to WSU a year ago from Victor Valley College, is among the other candidates.

3. How fast can new special teams coach Eric Russell shore up the unit?
The new WSU special teams coach, who comes to Pullman from Tennessee, has work to do. WSU was decent in kickoff returns (37th nationally) and middle-of-the-road in punt return defense (62nd). But punt returns (111th) and kickoff return defense (99th) were awful. WSU gave up four kickoff returns for TDs last season -- the most in FBS.

Even with the graduation loss of leading kick returner Isiah Barton (24.6 yards per), the Cougs should have no shortage of viable contenders to return kicks in 2012.

Sophomore-to-be Marcus Mason averaged 20 yards on 13 returns last season. In addition, receiver Henry Eaddy and running back Ricky Galvin returned three kicks each in 2011. Galvin averaged 25 yards and Eaddy 19.

New to the mix will be JC transfer Theron West, who averaged 26.9 yards per kickoff return last year at Los Angeles Harbor College, and 2011 recruiting bounce back player Rahmel Dockery, who was an all-purpose dynamo in his days at Curtis High in Tacoma.

Dockery could also figure into the punt return chores, though the Cougs return their leading man their from 2011 in Leon Brooks. Though he did not return a punt more than eight yards last season, Brooks still ranked among the nation's top 50 in total yards.

IMPROVEMENT WITHIN the coverage units' numbers will be realized if WSU can produce at least one productive gunner, an unheralded but crucial role that has too often been seen but not heard from enough in recent years.

Bennett Bontemps was the Cougs' primary gunner last season, with Kyle McCartney, Henry Eaddy and Isiah Myers also gaining varying amounts of experience in the role.

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