Six Questions for Spring

PULLMAN --- Spring has officially sprung on the Palouse, and with it comes a new era of optimism for the Washington State football team. For the first time in ages, the Cougars enter spring practices wondering not if they will be playing in a bowl next season, but rather which post-season soire it'll be.

The high expectations stem from the stellar 2001 campaign and the fact so many of the key contributors in that 10-win affair are back in crimson for 2002. Chief among them is veteran QB Jason Gesser, whom The Sporting News tabs as an early front runner for the Heisman Trophy.

A bowl game at the conclusion of 2002 would put these Cougars in rarefied territory. WSU has never gone bowling in back-to-back seasons (though many a local homer will tell you that Mike Pattinson's broken collarbone in 1993 is all that has kept this filthy little factoid in tact in the Mike Price era).

And unlike their bowl-going predecessors in Pullman, this follow-up club --- which includes 13 returning starters -- is actually getting some big-time respect heading into the next campaign. Indeed, the Cougars have become the chic pick to capture the Pac-10 title and are widely considered a pre-season top 10 or 15 choice.

Despite the lofty expectations, the players seem more concerned with avenging the only two losses --- Oregon and Washington -- that blemished their 2001 season, and the facts themselves show that the 2002 Cougars have some very real question marks.

Price & Co. hope to find all the right answers in the 15 workouts and scrimmages that will take place between now and the Crimson & Gray game on April 27.

In no particular order, here's a rundown of six things to look for in April:

1. Who will replace Dave Minnich?

Jermaine Green was a coveted JC pick-up for the Cougars this winter and would seem on paper to be the guy with the inside track to being THE back in WSU's one-back offense. At 6-1 and 211 pounds, he has the size to compete at the Pac-10 level and his 4.5 speed makes him a burner. Senior John Tippins, a former linebacker who made the most of his limited RB duty in 2001, will be a prime challenger this spring. So will Allen Thompson and Jimmy Wilson, oft-injured true freshmen in 2001 whom Cougar coaches like a lot.

Regardless of who emerges No. 1 on April 27, he will have to fend off new challengers come August when two more touted JC backs -- Jonathon Smith and Lionel Arnold --- and perhaps a third, Chris Bruhn, arrive on campus.

2. What can we expect from Devard Darling?

Hopefully, great things. Darling, who transferred to WSU from Florida State following the tragic death of his twin brother, is supremely talented, has great size (6-3, 205), and runs the 40 in just UNDER 4.4 seconds. He didn't start practicing in the fall until the waning weeks of the season and by then was rusty. However, he gave glimpses of his talent, and after a full season of winter workouts, followed by an entire spring to learn the offense, he could be a truly fine weapon for Gesser.

He's currently listed third on the depth chart at split end behind Mike Bush and Curtis Nettles, but he might be a nice fit at slotback, where Trandon Harvey and Marty Martin are currently running first and second. Flanker is well handled with Collin Henderson and Jerome Riley.

Bottom line, Gesser will have a proverbial boat load of swifties to throw to, and the idea of Bush, Riley and Darling all lining up on the same play ought to give Pac-10 defensive coordinators night sweats.

3. Is the backup QB position up for grabs?

With Gesser's small size and his I'd-rather-get-leveled-than-run-out-of-bounds mentality, the back up QB role could actually make or break WSU's 2002 season. The question is whether upstart Chris Hurd can unseat Mat Kegel.

Kegel, for all his talent and size, is still hitting some speed bumps on the road to learning the intricacies of Mike Price's complicated offense. That leads to bad reads and audibles. Still, he has shown flashes of sweetness in his limited action over the past two seasons. The question this spring is whether redshirt freshman Hurd, whose work ethic is already becoming the stuff of legend, will have what it takes to unseat the fourth-year junior. There's probably not a single player who watches more film, spends more time in the weight room or the practice field than Hurd. And it shows. Troubles early last season understanding the offense are a thing of the past. He improved by leaps and bounds as the season went on and had an impressive series of practices leading up to the Sun Bowl. He has a cannon for an arm and, despite his size (6-2, 219) has the abilities of a classic dropback passer -- facts that made it easy for Tali Ena to transfer to New Mexico.

Also in the mix this spring will be Josh Swogger, the strong-armed grayshirt from Ohio. He won't be a threat to Hurd and Kegel this spring, but his size and reputation make him an intriguing guy to watch.

4. What will the defense look like?

There is no bigger question surrounding the team than how the Cougs will replace their top four tacklers from last season -- Billy Newman, James Price, Raonall Smith and Lamont Thompson. The graduation of those four seniors leaves a HUGE hole in both the linebacking corps and secondary.

Who will fill that hole? Right now, it appears youngsters Pat Bennett and converted safety Ira Davis will step into the linebacking positions. Davis was one of the team's saviors in the win over Stanford in 2001, but didn't see a lot of action at linebacker for much of the season. Bennett, a true-sophomore-to-be is extremely talented, but it remains to be seen if he is a little too green to be starting. Al Genatone, a part-time starter in 2201,  will need to step up as a leader of the LB corps, something he didn't have to do with Price and Smith there. It will be interesting to watch the progress of Kevin Sperry, a junior college transfer from Los Angeles who will be a 23-year-old sophomore. With his size and ability, along with a full set of spring practices to grow accustomed to the defense, he is a strong candidate to steal one of those starting spots.

At the safety position, pencil in Erik Coleman to replace Thompson. He has bounced back and forth between safety and corner throughout his two-year career, but look for him to stick at safety. His physique and playing style seems to suit the saftey position better, and his corner abilities should lead to some ball-hawking plays a la Lamont. The other safety position is wide open, with fifth-year senior Virgil Williams and young guns Jeremy Bohannon and Hamza Abdullah all viable candidates. That position could be the most hotly contested during the spring.

For more perspective of the Cougar defense, click to the front-page CF.C story titled "Doba sizes up D."

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