Cougar Football Outlook 2005

TO USE THE PARLANCE of the surrounding geography, you could say that 2004 was a planting year for WSU football. The seedlings -- youngsters like <b>Michael Bumpus</b> and <b>Aaron Johnson</b> -- took root and the result in '05 should be a bumper crop of savvy playmakers. More than 20 guys who started at least one game return along with a full complement of special teamers. The club that fell one win short of a bowl invitation in '04 could be poised for a big-time return to prominence in 2005.

OFFENSE

Notable losses: OT Calvin Armstrong, OT Sam Lightbody, RG Patrick Afif, RB Chris Bruhn, RB Allen Thompson.

Top returnees: QB Josh Swogger, QB Alex Brink, RB Jerome Harrison, WR Michael Bumpus, WR Chris Jordan, WR Jason Hill, LG Bobby Byrd, C Nick Mihlhauser, RG Novell Holmes, TE Troy Bienemann, WR Greg Prator, WR Marty Martin, WR Trandon Harvey, LT Spencer Hollison, OG Riley Fitt-Chappell, FB Brandon Asuega-Stark, FB Jed Collins, TE Cody Boyd, OL Sean O'Connor.

Up-and-Comers: RB Kevin McCall, TE Jesse Taylor, OL Andy Roof, OL Dan Rowlands, OL Russell Foster, OL Eddie Vickers, OL Josh Duin, Center Bryan Boyer, WR Carl Shaw, WR/TE Scott Selby, TE Ben Woodard, QB Gary Rogers.

Look for:
The Cougar offense is loaded with veterans and the intense competition for the starting spots will result in dramatic improvement of the entire group. The nine returning starters should already have a good rapport, but their backups are so strong that virtually every starting position is up for grabs.

The quarterback position will feature a heated duel between former starter Josh Swogger and his late-season replacement Alex Brink. The broken foot that ended Swogger's season could affect his availability during spring drills, possibly giving Brink the edge. But at the moment it looks like a virtual dead heat between the two. Swogger's physical attributes speak for themselves, but it was Brink's intangibles that finally brought the Cougars an Apple Cup victory.

On a statistical basis they make a pretty equal case. In 193 attempts, Swogger completed 47 percent of his throws for 1,283 yards and 13 touchdowns against 7 interceptions. In 194 attempts, Brink completed 50 percent for 1305 yards, 7 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. As a starter Swogger is 3-3 (wins over New Mexico, Idaho, and Arizona), Brink is 2-3 (wins over UCLA and UW). Coach Doba has indicated his wish to avoid a QB controversy so look for him to declare a starter in the spring if one of them takes a significant step ahead. RS freshman Gary Rogers is the probable third stringer, with grayshirt freshman Cole Morgan looking to push him hard.

The Cougars have two strong running backs in Jerome Harrison and Kevin McCall, but are very thin beyond that. Harrison took over the starting spot in mid-season and never looked back, rushing for 900 yards and 9 touchdowns in just 174 attempts (5.2 yard average). McCall, a sophomore-to-be from Carson, Calif., will have a golden opportunity to shine in spring practices. He carried the ball eigth times for 44 yards this season. Signing running backs in the next recruiting class is a top priority and standouts the Cougs get at this position will likely see immediate playing time.

The young receiving corps struggled at times in 2004 but improved considerably. Depth abounds, but this is also an area of focus in recruiting as nearly all of the scholarship receivers are juniors and seniors. Reigning starters Michael Bumpus, Jason Hill, and Chris Jordan combined for 100 catches, 1,681 yards, and 14 touchdowns in 2004. Hill emerged as one of the best deep threats in the country, averaging 22.4 yards per catch (2nd highest in the nation) and setting a school record with 12 TD receptions. Bumpus lived up to his billing as one of the top recruits in the West and will to make an impact whenever he touches the ball. Jordan remains the steady-eddie possession receiver that QB's look to on third downs. Trandon Harvey, Marty Martin and Greg Prator are veterans who also will see lots of action.

Bookend tackles Calvin Armstrong and Sam Lightbody are gone, but the Cougs have plenty of salty veterans looking to fill their shoes. Riley Fitt-Chappell has experience at nearly every line position at could find a home at the right tackle slot. His 6-7, 316-pound frame is a virtual carbon copy of Armstrong's. Spencer Hollison is the leading candidate for left tackle position but he could be pushed by junior Charles Harris. The new starters will work around a strong core of blockers on the interior. Center Nick Mihlhauser is becoming one of the best in the business and returning guards Norvell Holmes and Bobby Byrd are coming along nicely. The Cougars' last two recruiting classes boasted a wealth of talented young hosses including Russell Foster, Andy Roof, Eddie Vickers, and Dan Rowlands. Any one of them could emerge as a breakout star this spring.

Keys to the season:
It's no secret that quarterback play is what makes WSU's offense work. It's encouraging that the Cougs essentially have a pair of starters vying for the job. Nearly every great Cougar QB struggled in his first campaign, but typically made huge strides in the second go-round. Both Brink and Swogger should have a complete command of the offense, and whomever ends up as the backup will be a valuable replacement should injuries knock. They should also benefit from a stronger relationship with their receivers as nearly all of them return next season. The loss of Armstrong and Lightbody hurts, particularly in pass protection, so solidifying those slots this spring is vital. The final key will be keeping the running backs healthy, because depth is razor thin. Bottom line, the offense should sizzle in 2005 barring a rash of injuries.

DEFENSE

Notable losses (all starters): CB Karl Paymah, DT Steve Cook, FS Hamza Abdullah, LB Pat Bennett, SS Jeremy Bohannon

Top returnees: DE Adam Braidwood, DE Mkristo Bruce, DT Ropati Pitoitua, LB Will Derting, LB Scott Davis, CB Alex Teems, CB Don Turner, CB Omowale Dada, Tyron Brackenridge, LB Steve Dildine, LB Brian Hall, DT Aaron Johnson, DT Odell Howard, S Christian Bass, S Husain Abdullah, S Eric Frampton

Up-and-Comers: DE Reyshawn Bobo, DE Paul Stevens, DE Matt Mullennix, DE Jason Roberts, DE Adam West, DT Colin Donovan, DT Matt Eichelberger, DT Jon Conlin, LB Steffan Blume, LB Alex Hamill, LB Jed Collins, CB Ian Bell

Look for:
Much like the offense, the defense spent a good portion of 2004 finding its sea legs, but now contains a strong group of playmakers. The secondary needs to be rebuilt and hungry freshmen are needed to add depth up front, but there are enough solid veterans in place to give coordinator Robb Akey more freedom to scheme in 2005.

The Cougs look particularly strong on the defensive line. Veteran ends Adam Braidwood and Mkristo Bruce came on strong as the season evolved and finished with a combined 11 sacks and 24 tackles for a loss. They will look to turn the pressure up a notch in 2005 and will have speedy rush ends Paul Stevens and Reyshawn Bobo backing them up. Defensive tackle Ropati Pitoitua was one of the biggest surprises on the team in 2004. The true freshman was an immediate starter and the Cougs' best pass rushing threat on the interior line. Despite missing more than one-third of the season to a high ankle sprain, Pitoitua finished second on the team with five sacks. Aaron Johnson and Odell Howard, each of whom saw a ton of time in 2004 because of injuries to Pitoitua and Steve Cook, will battle for the other starting tackle spot.

At linebacker, the Cougs will be formidable, with Will Derting and Scott Davis contending for post-season honors. Derting was once again the Cougs' most dominant defensive force registering a team best 93 stops and 12 tackles for a loss in ‘04. Davis was right behind with 86 tackles. Linebacker Steve Dildine will likely replace graduating Pat Bennett on the weak side, although junior Brian Hall also will make a strong case. Dildine showed tremendous promise last year as a blitz specialist, playing in all 11 games.

The secondary is the big question mark. Three starters are gone. Cornerback Alex Teems is the lone returnee. Seniors-to-be Wally Dada and Tyron Brackenridge have tons of speed and could really blossom with more experience under their belts. Each showed flashes in 2004. Junior Don Turner looked liked like he would beat out Teems in spring drills but injury problems hampered his progress. The safety positions are even more wide open. Sophomore Husain Abdullah is the most likely candidate to replace his brother Hamza at free safety. He played in all 11 games last year, tallying 23 stops and one interception. Junior Eric Frampton is next in line on the depth chart and should get the first look at strong safety. Second-year freshman Ian Bell and sophomore Christian Bass also will be in the mix. Bass has freakish speed and could have the most upside if he can overcome his inexperience. The 2005 recruiting class may need to supply depth here.

Keys to the season:
The Cougars are green in the secondary and really need some players to emerge at safety. However, the pieces are in place with the front seven to build a juggernaut if the DBs can emerge. Interceptions and sack production dipped tremendously in 2004, partly because the Cougs didn't blitz as much in an effort to take some of the pressure off their young defense. If a solid ball-hawking free safety emerges and the corners continue to make progress, expect Robb Akey to once again unleash hell on opposing quarterbacks.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Notable losses:
Virtually none.

Top returnees: All specialists return, including kickers Graham Siderius and Loren Langley, punter Kyle Basler (also the holder on kicks), long snappers Troy Bienemann and Riley Fitt-Chappell, and primary kick returners Michael Bumpus, Jerome Harrison, Tyron Brackenridge.

Up-and-Comers: Punters Fritz Brayton and David White.

Look for:
In many ways, Cougar special teams play has no where to go but up. To call the 2004 performance atrocious would be an understatement. Except for Michael Bumpus' fireworks returning punts, 2004 has to rank as the worst special teams effort – in all facets – in modern Cougar football history. Blocked punts, blown coverages, horrid placekicking and some puzzling stuff on kickoffs. The Cougars can take some comfort, however, in Basler. He'll be back for a fourth season and if he can smooth out bouts of inconsistency, figures to contend for All-America honors. While the Cougars look poised for a return to prominence in 2005, another year of special teams play like 2004 will undermine it all. Look for some serious attention to be paid to this part of the team in spring and fall workouts.

THE SCHEDULE

The Cougars will play an 11-game schedule in 2005, but currently have only ten dates filled. Look for one of the open dates -- September 17 or 24 -- to be filled this winter with a game in Seattle.

The Cougs will have a chance to get their sea legs early, opening with Idaho in Pullman on Labor Day Weekend and then traveling to Reno a week later to fulfill a home-and-home contract with Nevada.

The Pac-10 slate is daunting, with the first test on the road at Oregon State. Other road games are at USC, Cal, and Washington. Stanford, UCLA, ASU and Oregon will travel to Pullman. WSU does not play Arizona for the next two seasons.

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