Mike Price figures to launch his 13th crimson campaign much the same way he approached spring workouts: Cautiously.
The caution, however, is bit different than it was in March and April, when quarterback Jason Gesser's healing tibia was No. 1 on the priority protection list.
While Price returns eight starters to an offense that averaged 363 yards and 25 points per game in 2000, facts are facts: The Cougar O enters camp whisker thin at running back and receiver.
That means seniors David Minnich and Nakoa McElrath should plan on joining Gesser and understudy Matt Kegel in the "Handle Like Eggs" section of Martin Stadium for the duration of August workouts. None of the four are likely to see much full contact work until the televised season-opener against Idaho on August 30.
The importance of Minnich's health to the team escalated to the "crucial" category last month when incoming blue-chipper Dwayne Wright failed to secure a qualifying score on the SAT. Minnich, who gained nearly 800 yards a year ago as a part-time starter, is the only seasoned ground gainer on the club. No. 2 man Jeremy Theilbahr is a fifth-year senior who has carried the ball but a handful of times in his career, while John Tippins and Alex Nguae are completely untested.
The Cougars are nearly as untested at receiver. Of the returnees, only McElrath and juniors Curtis Nettles and Collin Henderson caught passes last season. Collectively, they grabbed 37 balls --- just four more than did Marcus Williams all by himself.
McElrath did, however, turn his 14 receptions of Y2K into five TDs and a glossy 303 yards. He is the man charged with replacing big-play Milton Wynn. Playing slotback in the Crimson and Gray game in April, he looked very much up to the challenge, grabbing 10 passes for 182 yards and three touchdowns.
Split ends Nettles and Anthony Buchanon have the speed to be game-breakers but they don't have the height or hands of the 6-2 McElrath. Newcomer Mike Bush of hardcourt fame has all the physical and athletic tools, but no experience at the college level. And whereas Henderson has the hands and height, he is the prototypical possession receiver, not a leaping stretcher of defenses.
That puts McElrath --- and his physical well being --- at center stage.
ASIDE FROM THE obvious need to get key players to August 30 in one piece, Price has a few of other pressing priorities:
-- Keep the penalties in check; --- Find a replacement for academically deficient middle linebacker Curtis Holden; and --- Keep the confidence high.
The Cougars, a perennial challenger for the Pac-10 penalty title, made huge strides in spring workouts. Coming into the spring finale, his troops had committed only 20 penalties in 300 scrimmage snaps. In the spring game itself there were 11 penalties between the two sides --- not great, but not all bad considering the intensity of the contest. You can bet the emphasis here will continue in August. A few bad kicks and a few more bad penalties may have been the difference between the Cougars going 4-7 last season or 7-4.
Unless Bill Doba gets a wild hare in his headphones and moves star strong safety Billy Newman to outside linebacker and outside linebacker James Price to Holden's spot in the middle, it looks like the starting middle linebacker will be either Al Genatone or Champ Simmons. Both are scrappers. Simmons has the edge in experience, starting most of last season on the outside when Price was in the middle, but his fraternity brawl fracas handed a ton of spring reps to Genatone. Aaron Wagner, who dominated at times this spring, would have been in the mix but the 6-foot-2, 221-pound sophomore is taking two years off on a Mormon mission.
As for confidence, Price said in the spring that three losing seasons and constant comparisons to the legendary Rose Bowl team had him worried his troops were a little brow beaten. So every practice he tried to end on a fun note, be it tug o' wars or a full uniform square-off between defensive line coach Mike Walker and graduate assistant Rob Rainville. "Our offense is confident and our defense is confident. The defense has it's swagger back," Price pronounced at the end of spring ball. Expect the attitude-building to continue in August.
Senior linebacker Serign Marong, the pride of Pullman High, was one of five WSU student-athletes recently honored with the national Arthur Ashe Sports Scholar Award. Marong, a biology major, also has been a first-team all-Pac-10 academic pick the past two seasons.
Milton Wynn, a fourth-round draft choice, just signed a three-year contract with the Rams. It's been a banner few weeks for Wynn -- a month ago he was among 20 seniors in the Pac-10 to receive the league's prestigious Conference Medal for outstanding work on the field and in the class room.
Curtis Holden went untaken last week in the NFL supplemental draft so should be signing a free-agent deal with someone any day now.