Lots of work needed before opener

WITH SPRING BALL in the rear view mirror, the Cougars are now 29 practices in August away from their nationally televised opener at New Mexico on Sept. 3. Given the youth of this team --- especially on offense, as Saturday's scrimmage illustrated -- every one of those sessions, as well as the work the players will do on their own this summer, is going to be like manna from Heaven.

If there were any doubts about the fact the Cougars will have 16 new starters in the line up this season, they were put to rest in sobering fashion this past weekend in the Crimson and Gray game.

This annual culmination of spring drills, pitting the first unit offense and defense against the rest of the team, typically produces a lot of points on one side of the scoreboard. Like 36-3 a year ago, 49-7 in 2002 and 27-6 in 2001.

But on Saturday it was Crimson (the side with all the starters) 14 and Gray 3.

Two TDs was all that the first-team offense and their primary understudies could muster against a bunch of youngsters on the Gray defense. False starts, dropped balls, fumbles, bobbled snaps. You name it and the offense did it. Oh, and don't forget the zero points in the first half.

As Jim Walden might have said if he were calling the color on this one, "They've set the game of football back 50 years."

Bill Doba summed it up well afterward: "Determining how good this team will be next fall will depend on how hard these guys work this summer. We have a group of young, talented players, but they are going to have to grow up a lot this summer. They have the talent and great work ethic."

His bottom line?

"Thank God we've got 29 more practices."

Say it again, coach, say it again.

Conventional wisdom coming into 2004 is that the offense will have to carry the load early in the season because the defense, which returns just two starters, is so young.

Based on spring drills generally and the Crimson and Gray game specifically, the D -- which acquitted itself well all spring -- will need to grow up even faster than forecast.

Indeed, the offense struggled this entire spring to develop any continuity. That's particularly troubling because first up in 2004 is the road trip to New Mexico, where the Lobos -- who gave the Cougars fits last season -- serve up a tenacious brand of defense that's full of confusing looks and schemes.

Alas, two of the biggest reasons for the Cougars' offensive struggles this spring should be mitigated fairly early in fall camp.

Foremost, of course, is that the opening at quarterback will be filled. Sophomore Josh Swogger, freshman Alex Brink and junior Chris Hurd were all taking aim at the starting spot this spring. All are entirely or mostly inexperienced. And no clear cut winner emerged, though Swogger will hold a slight edge over Brink when August camp opens. Settling quickly on the starter in August will help the entire unit gel.

In addition, the situation at receiver has been downright debilitating. Not only have the Cougars lost their three starters from a year ago -- Devard Darling, Sammy Moore and Scott Lunde -- but two of the primary heirs apparent, Chris Jordan (knee) and Jason Hill (shoulder) were out all spring with injury. And a third, Trandon Harvey, missed 90 percent of the session with a hamstring he tweaked while triple jumping for the Cougar track team.

That left junior-to-be Marty Martin, with all of five career catches, as the wily old veteran of the receiving corps. He did, by the way, perform beautifully, and appears a virtual lock to be in the starting line up come Sept. 3.

Jordan, Hill and Harvey are all expected back at full strength in August. So are the top three tight ends, each of whom was hampered by injury at one point or another this spring -- Troy Bienemann (concussion), Cody Boyd (shoulder) and Jesse Taylor (wrist).

The combination of inexperienced quarterbacks and untested wideouts conspired to make this spring season a real challenge on offense. But I don't think that will be a long-term problem -- and for reasons beyond getting healthy at receiver and adding certainty at QB.

How so?

Because the running backs and the hosses in the offensive line -- despite a penchant for false starts -- have a boat load of talent. The ability is there to take a huge burden off the passing game -- a surefire key to success in the early part of the season. In addition, the defense looks more advanced than expected, and possesses the same confidence and hell-fire mentality as the three Ds that helped the Cougars win 10 games in each of the previous three seasons.

I really see 2004 as a reload rather than a rebuild. Tune into ESPN on Sept. 3 to find out if I'm right.

NOTABLE NOTES:

* Sheldon High in Eugene, Ore., produced two of the standouts in Saturday's Crimson and Gray game: Gray linebacker Chris Baltzer (6-0, 220), who led all tacklers with eight stops, and Crimson quarterback Alex Brink, who completed 11 of 16 passes for 151 yards and a TD.

* Look for a battle royale in August when Alex Teems, Don Turner and JC transfer Tyron Brackenridge square off for the starting cornerback job opposite Karl Paymah. Teems and Turner were locked in a heated battle this spring until Turner went down with a bruised Achilles. Brackenridge, a four-star prospect from Chaffey JC, will arrive on campus this summer. Also keep an eye on Omowale Dada.

* Football season ticket holders have until May 1 to renew their seats for a 2004 schedule that features home dates with Idaho, Oregon, Stanford, USC, and Washington. Season ticket information is available by calling 1-800-GO-COUGS and selecting option three. Due to a high demand for season tickets, individual game sales will not be offered until July 12 and may exclude the opportunity to purchase seats for the Nov. 20 Apple Cup game with Washington.

* Tickets are on sale now for WSU's Sept. 11 clash in Seattle's Seahawks Stadium with Colorado. They can be purchased at the WSU Ticket Office or by calling 1-800-GO-COUGS, option three. The priority deadline for the Seattle game is May 1. After that date, all purchasers will be ranked according to the Ticket Priority Point System. Orders will be taken on a first come-first served basis after the priority deadline.

* Former Cougar Fab Five receiver Kevin McKenzie earned the Arena Football League's Ironman of the Week award last week after helping his Colorado Crush defeat the L.A. Avengers and fellow Fab Fiver Chris Jackson. McKenzie, who scored the first touchdown of the 1998 Rose Bowl against Michigan, hauled in seven passes for 65 yards and three touchdowns. He also recorded four solo tackles and two assists on D.


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