SPRING BALL: What we've learned

PULLMAN — Only one practice remains for the Cougars this spring. Through fourteen days of spring drills out on the Palouse we've learned plenty about the Cougs on offense, defense and special teams. Here are some of the things that have stood out most, and what we've learned...

1. Jeff Tuel will be the starting quarterback September 1 against BYU.
Mike Leach continually has said the quarterback race is open between Tuel and Connor Halliday – even throwing David Gilbertson in on occasion. But Tuel has not only been the most consistent and impressive QB thus far, he's also seen far and away the vast majority of reps with the 1s under center. (It should be noted Halliday has missed time this spring and is still healing from the injury to his liver last season.) As impressive as Tuel was last spring, he's been equally impressive in a new offense and his performance on Saturday at the Crimson & Gray game was exemplary.

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Tuel has been threading the needle and making good throws from every angle -- he seems like a kid in a candy store operating the Leach's Air Raid. He also has wheels and can make plays with his feet if the need arises. The senior-to-be also is playing with a chip on his shoulder -- a broken clavicle in the opener and then the calf injury against Oregon State wiped out his junior year. And it killed him not to be able to play. Nowadays, Tuel is constantly smiling during practice and also has taken on even more of a leading role. Leach wants competition, he wants the guys behind Tuel to develop and give their all 24/7. And he's keeping the QB job competition open. But it would take something akin to another debilitating injury to keep Tuel out of the starting job.

2. Depth on the offensive line is a primary concern heading into fall camp.
The Cougs have been banged up on the line this spring with, for starters, center Matt Goetz battling injury, right guard/tackle Wade Jacobson limited after recovering from back surgery, and guard/tackle Jake Rodgers also missing plenty of action because of a foot injury. With all the bumps and bruises, walk-ons Zack Johnson (LG), Gunnar Eklund (LG), and Elliott Bosch (C/LG) have all seen extensive time running with the starting unit. All three have done well given their lack of game experience, but they have also struggled at times. In the Cougs' second scrimmage, the defensive line had their way -- the offensive line gave up a total of 12 sacks (combined between 1s and 2s).

It was another up-then-down day on the o-line in the Crimson & Gray game. The unit protected well one play, allowed a sack soon after.

The 1s this spring have consisted mostly of LT John Fullington, LG Johnson, C Bosch, RG Dan Spitz and RT Rico Forbes. Forbes has come on nicely for the Cougars, and looks 10 times better than he did last fall camp. The biggest thing he needs to work on, though, is being consistent and making quality play after quality play. Jacobson getting a waiver and returning for the Cougars is huge, and he should make a push for one of the starting guard or tackle spots in the fall. Coug Nation also can't forget that two JC transfers will arrive this summer in OT Sam Jones and OG Niu Sale. Alex Mitchell is scheduled to arrive, too. It will be interesting to see how the unit gels in August's fall camp, but the players on the roster now definitely need to hit the weight room and work hard this summer.

3. The linebacker position is thin, but they can still be a successful unit in 2012 with the players they have.
With Sekope Kaufusi and C.J. Mizell gone for violating team rules and Alex Hoffman-Ellis lost to graduation, the unit looked to be on the respirator heading into spring drills. But Monroe, Sua and Eric Oertel have stepped in smartly and provided balance under the direction of outside linebackers coach Jeff Choate. The problem is what happens if an injury befalls just one of them.

The injury bug biting LBs Chester Sua (hand) and Darryl Monroe (leg) this spring has laid the concern bare. Monroe has been one of the most physical Cougar players on defense and loves throwing his body around and make big hits. The sophomore from Florida had an interception of Tuel in the second and has been a playmaker this spring despite missing some time. Sua is another hard hitter, and has shown good range. And Oertel has been what new defensive coordinator Mike Breske calls "the pleasant surprise of spring."

Oertel after flipping back and forth from linebacker to running back is now definitively on the defensive side of the ball and has flourished this spring. He gets there quickly and tackles with his face. Sure, Oertel has made mistakes in coverage and has missed some assignments -- but he's also made the transition more fluidly than was probably hoped for and on balance has been solid overall. Another positive for the unit is that there appears to be some solid guys running with the 2s who can contribute in 2012. Tana Pritchard and Cyrus Coen have shown flashes of potential with their ability to make plays, and have also seen time with the 1s. Another guy who can't be forgotten is MLB Darren Markle, who had two interceptions in the space of about three practices.

At the BUCK position in the Cougs' 3-4, Travis Long has looked sharp throughout spring -- he's a natural at the position. His ability to fall back into coverage should scare short-route receivers because Long has good feet and can quickly turn on the sprint button. Logan Mayes is another guy who has looked good lined up at the BUCK, and his speed, particularly in rushing the QB, is what makes his game. Mayes also has shown good coverage skills, but his coming off the edge -- whether having his hand down or standing up -- in applying pressure was the talk of the day on Saturday. Four and a half sacks will do that.

4. A WR with 1,388 yards, 82 receptions, and 12 touchdowns -- that doesn't guarantee you a starting spot in Mike Leach's offense.
But days like Saturday will. Junior WR Marquess Wilson has had to earn his time running with the starters this spring. On more than a few occasions Wilson was sent to run with the scout team offense this spring. In the week leading up to the Crimson and Gray game, Leach called Wilson's work ethic "average" and said he had a long way to go. But every one of Wilson's catches on Saturday (4 rec. 149 yards, TD) was special.

What will make all the chatter moot will be if Wilson becomes more physical at the line. Leach wants all of his WRs to be able to block well, and it's something Wilson struggled with early on this spring. He has gotten better at it over the course of 14 practices, but there's still plenty of room for improvement -- and that's also the case for the other receivers. The fact of the matter is that Wilson is the Cougars' most impressive wideout and best deep threat, and his ability to make prime time plays is unmatched. Wilson's one-handed grab on Saturday wasn't all that unusual -- he's made unbelievable catches time and time again in practice and he and Tuel are starting to really find a groove. Still, Leach wants his star player to give him a star effort.

5. Special teams are going to be special again for the Cougs in 2012.
We could have used this space to talk about Andrei Lintz, who has been the breakout offensive player of the spring. The former tight end turned slot receiver in our estimation could catch 60 passes this year. Or we could have talked more about the defensive line, which has looked impressive at times this spring.

But special teams are often the difference, even if they don't get the credit for wins that they deserve. The S-T talk begins with Mike Bowlin, who killed a kickoff on Saturday that forced the return man out of the back of the end zone. Bowlin, quite simply, has been a weapon this spring. In addition to his ability to drill it deep on kickoffs, he's rocketed punt after punt this spring, deep and with enough hang-time so that all the return man can do is wave his arm and fair catch.

Andrew Furney has been mostly steady on field goals, with Bowlin handling kickoffs and punts. Bowlin may also be called in if the Cougs want to try something really long, say a 55-yard plus field goal at the end of the half, though Furney did drill one from 51 yards last season. More work needs to be done on the return game units and the gunners are still a work in progress. But touchbacks and fair catches solve an awful lot of issues when it comes to special teams. And the Cougs will have many more of those in 2012 than they have in some time with Bowlin putting foot to pigskin.

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