COUGAR OUTLOOK 2002

WITH THE 10-2 record and national Top 10 finish of 2001 as a spring board, ten all-Pac-10 performers returning, some hotshot JC recruits coming in, and a schedule that shapes up nicely, the 2002 Cougars looked loaded for bear. Here's our early take on who's who and what's what for '02.

By the staff of Cougfan.com

THE OFFENSE

Notable losses:
WR Nakoa McElrath, RB Dave Minnich, TE Jeremy Thielbahr, TE Mark Baldwin, OL Joey Hollenbeck, P Alan Cox

Top returnees:
QB Jason Gesser, WR Mike Bush, WR Jerome Riley, WR Collin Henderson, WR Trandon Harvey, ST Curtis Nettles, RB John Tippins, LT Josh Parrish, RT Phil Locker, RT/LG Billy Knotts, OL Calvin Armstrong, OL Sam Lightbody, RG Derrick Roche, C Tyler Hunt

Look for:
A veteran QB with a seasoned line is the recipe for a fine season, particularly with guys like Bush and Riley catching the ball. Speaking of the passing game, Cougfans will finally get a look at Florida State transfer Devard Darling and early reports say they'll like what they see. Youngster Marty Martin and Thomas Ostrander may also see plenty of action at receiver in '02. Tight end will be up for grabs, with sophomore Mark Alhburg and redshirt freshman Tim Burnette and true freshman Troy Bienemann top contenders unless Mike Price finds a JC kid who can step in. Running back will be the team's biggest offensive question mark, but it looks like there will be a ton of talent competing for time. Tippins showed promise in 2001, as did fleet freshmen Allen Thompson and Jimmy Wilson before going down with injuries. Moreover, some incredible JC running talent is headed to Pullman in the form of Jermaine Green, Jonathan Smith and Lionel Arnold.

Key to the season:
Getting steady production at running back is imperative, but keeping Gesser healthy is the single-biggest key to offensive success in 2002. He's a gamer whose aversion to running out of bounds or sliding found him nursing dings all season long. Back-up Matt Kegel showed tremendous promise in 1999 but actually looked at times in 2000 as if he'd regressed, so it's incumbent on Gesser to take better care of himself on the field.

The second key to offensive success will be the health and maturity of the line. The hosses, led by Hunt and first-team All-Pac-10 guard Roche, continued to develop nicely in 2001 and figure to be a real force in 2002. They'll need to do a better job of handling the blitz, though, as the Cougar offense in the second half of '01 sputtered against a constant diet of full-blown pressure.

THE DEFENSE

Notable losses:
FS Lamont Thompson, SS Billy Newman, OLB Raonall Smith, OLB James Price, MLB Alex Ngaue, DE Tupo Tuupo

Top returnees:
DE D.C. Acholunu, CB Marcus Trufant, CB Jason David, CB/S Erik Coleman, DT Tomasi Kongaika, DT Ing Aleaga, DT Jeremey Williams, DT Rien Long, DT Tai Tupai, DE Fred Shavies, DE Issac Brown, LB Al Genatone, LB Pat Bennett

Look for:
Big-time contributions from incoming JC linebackers Kevin Sperry and Don Jackson. If they develop, the weakest link on the team could actually become a strength, particularly with the continued development of Genatone and Bennett. Youngster Will Derting is another one to keep an eye on if his knee is completely healed.

Keys to the season:
The line, led by All-America-caliber tackle Rien Long and sack-master end D.D. Acholonu, figures to be as stout as any in the Mike Price era, including the remarkable Palouse Posse bunch of 1994. But four holes need to be filled: two at linebacker and two at safety. Cornerback Marcus Trufant is another All-America-type talent and Jason David is coming on fast at the other corner. Look for veteran Erik Coleman to step in at one safety spot, with senior Virgil Williams contending with Ira Davis (presuming he moves back to the secondary after subbing at linebacker), Karl Paymah, Aaron Joseph and Hamza Abdullah for the other spot. Thompson and Newman were a rare combo of thunder and lightening, but the Cougars have a lot of young talent here that should make the transition easier. Davis is a particularly intriguing talent with great wheels and a thirst for heavy hitting.

THE SPECIALISTS

Starters lost:
P Alan Cox, LS Alex Johnson

Special teams play was one big reason for the Cougars' turnaround 2001 season and many of the marquee guys are back for 2002. Chief among them are placekicker Drew Dunning and kick-off man Adam Holiday. Both were nothing less than outstanding in 2001, with Dunning breaking one of Jason Hanson's records on his way to first-team All-Pac-10 honors and Holiday booming something on the order of 30 kickoffs for touchbacks. Cox was steady as rain at punter in 2001 and will be missed, but there's no shortage of legs waiting to step up in 2002. A pair of redshirt freshmen --- Graham Siderious and walk-on Kyle Basler --- are the most likely successors. Moreover, tight end Mark Ahlberg was an accomplished prep punter and so are two members of the incoming class of freshmen: Carl Bonnell and Chris Jordan. The return-man situation is also solid with the likes of Collin Henderson, Erik Coleman and speed-merchant Curtis Nettles all back, and highly-touted JC transfer Sammy Moore en route. Long-snapping specialist Alex Johnson will need to be replaced.

THE SCHEDULE

The Cougars open at home with Nevada and Idaho and then head to Columbus for a showdown with Ohio State in Week 3 before returning home to take on Montana State. A 3-1 start is more than likely and 4-0 is a definite possibility. The Pac-10 season starts favorably, with struggling Cal on the road and then USC coming to Pullman. The Cougs then hit the road to Stanford and Arizona, but get one of the great scheduling breaks of the century, closing the Pac-10 season with three of four games at home. They get Arizona State, Oregon and Washington in Pullman. Only UCLA is on the road.

A bye is tentatively set for Week 8 ---- a potential stratagem that gives the Cougs a breather before closing the Pac-10 campaign with the Devils, Ducks, Dawgs and Bruins.

The Cougs are set to close out the regular season at Hawaii in a fitting tribute to Honolulu native Jason Gesser.

For the first of two straight seasons, the Cougars won't play Oregon State.


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