Four reasons why Cougs staying home for holidays

A NUMBER OF factors conspired to leave Washington State one win shy of a bowl invitation this season. But the most significant, yet obscure, among them was the unfortunate echo from the dog days sandwiched between the 1997 season of destiny and the 2001 Sun Bowl campaign.

The dip in that roller coaster ride -- created with the loss of a huge senior class following the January 1998 Rose Bowl and then exacerbated by injury and academic woes -– lasted three years. The reverberations, however, were felt mightily this season because the depleted talent pool back then forced the Cougars to burn the redshirts of four true freshmen in 2000.

You may have heard of them: Erik Coleman, Jason David, D.D. Acholonu and Tai Tupai. All earned some form of all-conference recognition in 2003.

This year, Coleman (Jets) was just picked by ESPN to its mid-season NFL All-Rookie team and David (Colts) got some votes as well. Acholonu spent the early part of the year with the Houston Texans' practice squad and no doubt will get another shot somewhere in 2005.

We're talking not only about a wealth of excellence on the field, but outstanding leadership as well.

Think for a moment about having those four in the line up this season as fifth-year seniors. Somehow Kellen Clemens' fourth quarter magic becomes hard to envision. So does Trent Edwards' first half from heaven. And do you think that one way or another, against Colorado's anemic offense, these guys could have made up the difference in that nailbiting loss?

Suddenly the Cougars aren't 5-6. They're 8-3 and we're all prepping for a return to San Diego or El Paso.

Erik, Jason, D.D. and Tai illustrate the far-reaching consequences of losing. Here we are four years removed from the last of those down seasons and we're still getting a bite in the rear-end.

The reason?

Losing forces you to play young talent sooner than you otherwise would. Some guys like Drew Bledsoe, Marcus Trufant and Michael Bumpus are just too good to keep off the field as rookies. Talent like that, however, is rare. The Pac-10 is too big, too fast and too sophisticated for most 18-year-olds to make a significant contribution.

Coleman & Co. are super talented, but each would have stayed for a fifth season on the Palouse if it had been possible. After all, the NFL didn't see fit to draft David and Coleman until mid rounds and left D.D. and Tai to free agency.

It's also important to note that back in 2000, as true freshmen, each made solid contributions, but mostly on special teams and/or in spot duty.

Established programs fill those narrower roles with second- and third-year guys. When you're shorthanded, as the Cougars were in those days, you have no choice but to play the handful of freshmen capable of stepping right in. That's especially true if injuries mount.

The tradeoff, though, is severe. You're effectively swapping what would be a kid's best season – as a fifth-year senior – for the more limited role he can play as a true freshman. For perspective, consider that Coleman, David, Acholonu and Tupai combined for seven starts and 41 tackles as freshmen. By contrast, as fourth-year seniors in 2003, they amassed 52 starts and 219 total stops.

That's production, and a ton of veteran leadership, that the young 2004 Cougars could have used in a big way.

While youngsters love to play early, the simple fact is that doing so doesn't promote sustained success.

For a case in point, look at the Washington Huskies, who lost 10 games this season and were winless in the Pac-10. There's no bigger indictment on the state of that program than the fact they played seven true freshmen. And 11 second-year freshmen saw significant playing time. You just know those numbers had Don James turning over in his Poulsbo RV. Back in his day on Montlake, the unwritten rule was that every true freshman – sans the occasional Napoleon Kaufman -- be redshirted. It's no coincidence that James was able to sustain success during his 18-year run in purple.

So using the playing time of true freshmen as a barometer of a program's health, where do the Cougars stack up?

Very nicely, thank you.

This season they burned the redshirts of three guys: Bumpus, an all-world talent who probably won't be around for a fifth year anyway; kicker Loren Langley, but he doesn't really count because kickers are, well, kickers; and Jed Collins, a unique case in that he was used on special teams, offense and defense.

In 2003, receiver Jason Hill was the only true freshman to burn his shirt and in 2002 defensive end Adam Braidwood was the lone cat.

That's four guys in three years (kickers, remember, don't count). Five years from now, when you look back on WSU's decade of sustained success, you'll see that 5-6 blip next to 2004. Purely an unfortunate echo from the dog days, my friends. Given the stability of the coaching staff and the caliber of recruits the Cougars are attracting, there will be no more echoes on the Palouse for a long, long while.

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