The key to 2004

<b>BILL DOBA</b> OUGHT TO be running a political campaign. He and his assistant coaches are so consistently <i>on message</i> they could drive Christopher Matthews or Bill O'Reilly to distraction. Better yet, the message they're so unified in delivering is short and easy to understand. It consists of just three words that, when strung together, will go far in shaping the Cougars' 2004 season.

The offensive line.

That's it. The offensive line. You can't get much more succinct than that.

Ask Mike Levenseller what the strength of the 2004 Cougar offense will be and he tells you, "our front."

Ask George Yarno, the offensive line coach, to talk about his troops and he says they have the potential to be a dominate force in the Pac-10.

Doba, speaking to 350 partisans in March at the annual Pierce County Cougar Club dinner, was matter-of-fact: The offensive line will be the strength of his second club.

To put the proverbial frosting on top of this unified cake, consider the words of WSU defensive coordinator Robb Akey, whose blasting and blitzing stop corps has been the ultimate Cougar strength for the last two seasons. "The offense," he says, "will carry us in the early part of the season while our young guys on defense mature."

On paper, says Yarno, the offensive line "has a chance to be really good."

Of course, that's what many pundits expected a year ago as well. And it didn't happen, at least on a consistent basis.

"This year they have to be," says Levenseller. "With George leading them and the work ethic they possess, I believe they'll take it upon themselves to make the offensive line the strength of this team. If we're good up front, the rest will fall into place."

Yarno points to the Cougars' dominating performance in the Holiday Bowl as a taste of what his troops are capable of doing. "In the Texas game we did a tremendous job. Things really came together. As a unit, we were finally healthy, and my system was starting to really take hold with them."

Yarno's system, borne from 13 years in the professional trenches and another dozen as a college assistant, is unique because it goes way beyond the basic memorization of assignments and techniques. It's not something players pick up overnight.

Yarno preaches the virtue of knowing the entire game. He wants each lineman to know the broader picture of each play, so that they can anticipate where every player on the field -- from the safety to the slotback -- is headed.

"I try to teach the whole game of football. I want our guys to learn to see the entire field," Yarno says. "Once you do, the game becomes almost simplistic in nature. At that point, as an offensive lineman, you can really become aggressive. I believe offensive linemen should be the most aggressive players on the field. It takes time to get to that point. In the Texas game, we saw what can happen. After a year here, my system is taking root."

The Cougars return three starters from last season: All-America candidate Calvin Armstrong (6-7, 318) at left tackle, Sam Lightbody (6-9), 320) at right tackle and Nick Mihlhauser (6-3, 290) at center.

The two guard spots look to be filled by junior Riley Fitt-Chappell (6-6, 318), a part-time starter over the last two seasons; senior Patrick Afif (6-7, 319), a heralded JC transfer a year ago; and second-year freshman Bobby Byrd who has bulked up his 6-7 frame to 300 pounds.

Keola Loo (6-1, 290), Charles Harris (6-6, 285), Sean O'Connor (6-5, 295), Josh Duin (6-3, 305), and perhaps Spencer Hollison (6-5, 288) and Russell Foster (6-7, 315), will all fight for turns in the rotation as well, be it at guard, center or tackle. Norvell Holmes, if he is healthy, figures to be in the mix as well.

Loo and Harris both saw a fair amount of action in 2003 and look to compete at a high level in '04.

"Everybody gets a shot," said Yarno. "The goal is to get the five best people on the field. We've got solid experience, and a good corps of young players."

Armstrong, a first-team all-conference performer as a sophomore in 2002 and a pre-season candidate for the 2004 Lombardi Award, given annually to the nation's best down lineman or linebacker, is the undisputed anchor. The pride of Centralia has started 33 of 37 games in his Cougar career and at 6-7, 320 pounds is as stout as they come.

Lightbody also has the potential to be great, says Yarno. The fifth-year senior from Huntington Beach, Calif., has worked on his upper-body strength, which should pay considerable dividends in 2004.

Levenseller predicts Mihlhaueser, a true junior, will be an all-Pac-10 selection before his career is over.

LOOKING TO 2005 and beyond, Yarno noted that he's delighted with the three offensive linemen the Cougars have in their incoming class of recruits: Andy Roof, Eddie Vickers and Dan Rowlands.

"The nucleous of our line of the future. They have the potential to be three- or four-year starters. All three are tenacious. They play extremely hard," Yarno said. He said Roof is a unique combination of size, power and athleticism. He termed Rowlands "tall, mean, athletic and aggressive." And said Vickers, who comes in tipping the scales at 320 pounds, has great feet -- adding up to a bad combination for opposing defensive linemen.


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