Paul Sorensen SLAPs Eric Russell

ANYONE WHO knows me knows I'm an old-school guy. If you're going to tackle someone, lay your hat on the ear hole. If you're going to run 10 sets of stadium stairs, why not make it 20? If you have something on your mind, say it clearly so there's no confusion. Guys like me can spot guys like me a mile away.

And so the first time I met WSU assistant head coach and and special teams coach Eric Russell back In February I knew within seconds I was talking to an old-school guy. He's probably not as in-your-face as I can be, but he's a native of St. Maries, Idaho, who has coached at both Texas Tech and Tennessee so you have to figure he's going to be a plain-speaking son of a gun.

He's serious about his football. He's serious about teaching the fundamentals and seeing his students execute those fundamentals on the field.




This week I spoke at some length with Coach Russell about special teams at WSU and what we can expect to see come September. Here are some highlights of our conversation:

What were your impressions of WSU special teams from last year?

RUSSELL: I really didn't have any impressions coming into spring! I did know that kicker Andrew Furney was very good last year in field goals percentage -- he only missed two, going 14 for 16, and was very solid inside the 40 yard line. As a unit, WSU was last or second to last in almost all the key return stats like kick return yards, punt return yards and so forth, so we have some work to do with those units, and it is our job as a staff to coach them up and get them better.

What's the key to getting special teams better?

RUSSELL: I have to get our players to buy into the program, which means we might need starters to play a more prominent role in the coverage teams or protection for our punters and kickers. Coach Leach will have a say on whether we can use his receivers, running backs, tight ends, linebacker and defensive backs to run down on kicks. Players, say, like a Rickey Galvin, or Andrei Lintz, Kristoff Williams or Travis Long, Deone Bucannon, Logan Mayes, Cyrus Coen and Eric Oertel. They are key members of the offensive and defensive units, to name a few, who could contribute on special teams.

In one word, what's your philosophical approach to special teams?

The thing I like about working for Mike Leach is he hires the best coaches he can and lets us do our job without much interference. We are going to be aggressive on defense and offense -- why not special teams too? We are going to be aggressive.

I know motivating players is something you really spend time on. What are some of the ways you go about doing that?

RUSSELL: We use motivation at every practice ... We show the Rose Bowl Trophy or hold up a great player from WSU's past, or talk about winning the Pac-12 championship. We give them a story behind it ... When we get back to the bowl games they are going to be ready and willing to compete to bring home another championship.

What are some of the changes you plan that the average fan might not notice?

LEON BROOKS

RUSSELL: We are going to change up some of the protection, like keeping the center in on punt coverage longer to block instead of a free release from the line of scrimmage. We will angle kick .... In punting, a primary goal is to get the best hang time we can, which lets our coverage get down field and limits good returns ... Also, with the new rule change on kickoffs starting from the 35 instead of the 30, and with the coverage team having a five-yard running start instead of 10-yard start like in the past, we have to decide if we want Michael Bowlin to kick it out of the end zone or kick it 2-3 yards deep and let the return team bring the ball out or take it on the 25-yard line?

Kickers are unique because the whole stadium comes to a standstill when they're on the field and if they make a mistake it's so obvious. Talk about that for a seconed.

Kickers have to have a short memory and be mentally solid if they miss a kick or have one blocked they have to come back forget about it and compete when we put them back in the game! My job is to make sure everyone is dialed in has great tempo and fundamentals and is out there to compete.

What can we expect to see on special teams when practices resume in August?

RUSSELL: We have a long way to go and we will use some incoming freshmen next fall to get us better.

Who are we likely to see as the kickoff and punt returners?

Right now, on punt returns, we have last year's returner, Leon Brooks, as well as Rahmel Dockery, who needs to work on ball security, and Rickey Galvin. For kickoff returns, Kristoff Williams, Galvin, Dockery and Marquess Wilson are the guys.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Paul Sorensen played safety for the Cougars from 1980-81, earning first-team All-American honors as a senior. He later played in the NFL and USFL. From 1985-98 he was the color commentator on radio broadcasts of Cougar football. He has held a similar role on Eastern Washington University broadcasts over the last several years. Also a long-time assistant coach in the Greater Spokane League, he's been writing periodically for CF.C since 1999. His columns here are labeled SLAP! The acronym stands for Sorensen Looks At the Program. The word also aptly describes the way Paul played safety and the way he does color commentary: in-your-face, nothing held back.

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