Previewing the OL: Yarno sees 10-man rotation

THEY ARE CONSPICUOUS in their absence. The 6-foot-9 and 6-7, 320-plus pound frames of Sam Lightbody and Calvin Armstrong created huge shadows for much of the five years the pair played offensive tackle at Washington State.

Armstrong, an All-Pac-10 performer last season, is now with the Philadelphia Eagles. Lightbody, a second-team all-conference player, is with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"It takes a little time to replace guys like that," offensive line coach George Yarno said between two-a-day practices last week.

Indeed, Yarno has been quite vocal of late with his troops about stepping up their play.

As important as Armstrong and Lightbody were, there's not a shadow of doubt in Yarno's mind the Cougars will regroup. By the time conference play begins Oct. 1 against Oregon State, Yarno foresees having as many as 10 players capable of making significant contributions.

"I think we're on the verge of that, if we don't have it already," he said.

He points to factors both within and outside the line of play.

Within the line, sophomore Bobby Byrd, who started at right guard last season, returns to his natural position of left tackle. The 6-6, 319-pounder takes over for Armstrong, while junior Charles Harris moves into Lightbody's right tackle slot.

Byrd was highly recruited out of high school in California, but Harris's emergence has been quieter. An unheralded defensive end at Mead High in Spokane, Harris is the consummate self-made man, said Yarno, citing Harris' exemplary weight-training and conditioning efforts. The 6-6, 314-pounder brings more athleticism to right tackle, which he has played when Lightbody was hurt.

"He's really made himself into what he is today," he said.

Those two may garner their share of acclaim down the road, but it is center Nick Mihlhauser grabbing the preseason headlines. The 6-3, 280-pound senior is one of 39 centers on the watch list for the Dave Rimington Trophy, emblematic of the nation's finest center.

"The center needs to be a leader," Yarno said. "He's certainly deserving of (the nomination). I feel he'll be one of the best centers if not the best center in the Pac-10 this year."

Mihlhauser combines strength, quickness and a passion for the game. "We'll throw the toss sweep, and he can get out in front of the running back," Yarno said.

Mihlhauser's leadership skills are rivaled by that of fellow senior Norvell Holmes, a stout 6-2, 295-pound guard whose career seemed to be in doubt two years ago following a back ailment. Holmes' perseverance is a thing of beauty among the Big Uglies, but he must share the limelight.

Junior Sean O'Connor also has overcome injuries as he moves from being a role player to a starting role at left guard. O'Connor has often lined up at tight end, particularly last year when Troy Bienemann and Cody Boyd were injured. At 6-6 and nearly 290 pounds, O'Connor has "done a great job," Yarno said. "He's done the most with his opportunity. He's really helped solidify the line."

A COMBINATION OF youthful talent and experience serves as the reinforcements, said Yarno, alluding to juniors Spencer Hollison (6-6, 305) and Josh Duin (6-3, 311) , senior Riley Fitt-Chappell (6-7, 316), and second-year freshmen Andy Roof (6-3, 316) and Dan Rowlands (6-5, 284).

True freshman Kenny Alfred (6-3, 294) of Gig Harbor may also play as Yarno grooms him to take over for Mihlhauser in 2006. Another big body waiting in the wings is Derek Hunter, a 6-4, 285-pound JC transfer who has four seasons to play three and may redshirt this season.

Rowlands is recovering from gall bladder surgery faster than expected, Yarno said. That's a good thing. The 6-4, 295-pound Los Alamitos, Calif., product must get stronger, but he's a quick study and could play several positions.

"He is probably the smartest of the young players we have," Yarno said.

Strength is not a problem for Roof, a year removed from East Valley High in Spokane, where he was renowned for his aggressiveness and ability to squat more than 650 pounds and bench 350. Only game experience holds him back.

"He's tremendously powerful, very athletic," Yarno said. "I expect him to be a very good football player for us one day."

A pair of walk-on linemen, freshmen Scott Friberg (6-4, 275, Lake Washington) and Jimmy Magee (6-3, 288, Ballard) have caught Yarno's eye as well.

"I'm real happy with those kids. I think they have a chance to play here one day," he said.

With a proven corps of skill players around them, including two quarterbacks with Pac-10 experience, the offensive line has an even greater chance to shine. Playmakers such as Jerome Harrison, Jason Hill and Michael Bumpus can be to WSU what Reggie Bush, Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett are to USC.

"You don't have to block as long or as well. The better the skill players, the better the line will look," Yarno said.

And the coach?

"I've been called many things, but genius has never been one of them," Yarno laughed.

IN A MORE SERIOUS TONE, Yarno warned that inconsistency in the line play can wreak havoc on an offense, but he doubts he'll have that problem this season. In the off season, Yarno and his fellow coaches simplified terminology and altered the interplay of routes and blocking schemes to help younger players more quickly adapt.

"They have a great passion for the game, and they're very coachable," he said. "I really enjoy coming to work every day."

NOTES:

Colin Donovan, a 6-7, 305-pound second-year freshman from Superior, Mont., is still recovering from knee surgery in the spring and will miss the season. WSU may pursue a medical hardship.

In 2004, the Cougar offensive line did not allow any sacks against Oregon or Idaho, and just one at UCLA.

Yarno this season will not miss USC's Mike Patterson and Sean Cody, a pair of defensive tackles now in the NFL. "Their two d-tackles were as good as I've ever seen in college football. It's hard to double team both defensive tackles and still keep people out of your backfield."

This is one in a series of periodic articles breaking down the 2005 Cougars by position. Click below for previous installments:

DL looks ready for rebound

Starters emerge in secondary

QBs and more with Jack Thompson

LBs will lead Killer D


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