The offensive line. Indeed, the Cougar offense, and likely the Cougs themselves in 2012, will live or die on the offensive line. And it's all about time.
Note: WSU held a "15 minute walk-through" today prior to the practice's originally scheduled time according to the SID office. As a result, CF.C and other media were not in attendance. Given the brevity and content of the session, there was little to observe or report on, CF.C has been told.
The quarterback position should be solid and there appears a plethora of highly capable receivers in the stable for the 2012 campaign. Granted, the defense will have to perform. But the offensive line is the key.
With that defense, one unproven and full of youth and inexperience, the Cougs may well need to score a lot of points this season. And that means a Cougar offensive line that gives the quarterback one thing most of all -- time.
No, the ball isn't always being chucked downfield. Mike Leach's system certainly involves a number of short pass plays, variable and creative in design, and yes, some running plays too.
BUT THOSE SHORT pass plays also require quick, athletic linemen who can get downfield and make blocks at the second level. And truth be told based on the fall camp returns, Washington State should find some success in this area.
Although Leach prefers bigger hogmollies in the trenches to take up space, the linemen he inherited should fit that short-passing, quicker-release part of his offense quite nicely. The current and projected starting five – LT John Fullington, LG Matt Goetz, C Elliott Bosch, RG Wade Jacobson/Jake Rodgers and RT Dan Spitz/Jake Rodgers have good feet and decent athleticism.
That said, medium-range plays in space plus the quick-strike explosive plays down the field are also a key staple of the Leach scheme -- the short, medium and the long all go together. Take one away, and the others suffer.
And so this offensive line will need to find a way to create time for senior Jeff Tuel to find open targets.
The Cougars offensive line has progressively shown more and more promise this fall camp, slowly developing, but developing nonetheless.
THE BIGGEST ISSUE up front for the Cougs this season may be depth. The offensive line is thin and will rely on a group that has to stay healthy in order to help move the chains. In recent seasons and prior to Leach, the Cougs have seen a bevy of injuries plague their team early and often. For the Cougs to accomplish their goals in 2012, that cannot happen.
The starting five is good. They're not great, but they are a reliable, steady group.
Fullington, a junior has entrenched himself in the left tackle position. The Belfair, WA, native has drawn NFL hype with his footwork and size. And the left tackle spot is the quintessential spot in protecting a right-handed quarterback's blind side.
Goetz, a junior, has earned the starting nod at the left guard spot after a very impressive offseason and fall camp. Offensive line coach Clay McGuire has tabbed Goetz the vocal leader of the line, saying that he has made great strides since the spring – and perhaps most importantly getting himself into great shape. Goetz has looked especially good pulling and in blocking downfield.
Bosch, a junior, has earned the starting job at center, although some may argue senior Taylor Meighen is still pushing him for the spot. But Bosch has gotten by far the most first team reps and he's been consistent, displaying strong fundamentals and good effort.
At this point, the right guard position is probably the most hotly contested position on the line. Jacobson, a senior is the guess here, but Rodgers, a sophomore, arguably has just as good a shot. Jacobson has had some lapses in concentration and technique pointed out to him by the coaching staff, but his experience and maturity may be the deciding factor.
Spitz, a senior, might have the right tackle position about wrapped up though Rodgers can't be counted out here either. Spitz uses his size (6-7, 300) well and is reliable force on the outside of the line.
BEYOND THAT, things get a little dicey.
Redshirt freshman walk on Gunner Eklund has looked strong running with the 2's this fall, staking a claim for playing time if injuries strike. The Lake Stevens product has been praised by coaches for his hard work and technique.
(And it's worth noting here the aforementioned Meighen has shown poise and tenacity this fall camp, but has lacked some of the fundamentals at times to have been a consistent force at center. Meanwhile, the versatile Rodgers is a very good option if performance or injuries become an issue at either guard or tackle.)
But what if injuries not only strike but strike hard? Redshirt freshmen Moritz Christ and Joe Dahl are both options, but they have yet to make any sort of impact in fall camp. Sophomore Brent Anderson has also run with the 2's this fall, but much like the latter, has yet to push for playing time.
True freshman Denzell Dotson arrived last spring, and got a head start during spring ball. But Dotson is still rather small by Pac-12 standards, and could desperately use a year in the weight room to fill in.
Much like Dotson, freshmen Sam Flor, Eduardo Middleton and Pierson Villarrubia all look to need at least one full year in the weight room if they hope to hold their own at this level. McGuire has echoed this sentiment throughout camp, stating that it would take a ‘complete tragedy' to get the freshmen on the field this season.
This team does have the capability to win seven or more games this season, but they may have to score a ton of points to do so. The defense may be on a learning curve all season, and so the offense will need to be hitting on all cylinders on a week-to-week basis.
This offense is predicated on protecting the passer, and that also means letting the patterns develop. And so it bears repeating: The Cougs in 2012 will go as far as the offensive line can take them.
SPOTLIGHT: For Cougs, it's a question of time
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