GAME WEEK: Familiarity breeds high hopes on O-line

PULLMAN -- One year ago, the Cougars had at least one if not two NFL-caliber seniors on its front five in Calvin Armstrong and Sam Lightbody. However, a consistent starting unit wasn't finalized until well into the season, which took its toll on the field. But this year, despite less "name talent" at its disposal, WSU's starting offensive line has been set since spring camp. Meanwhile, Cory Evans and Scott Selby turned in the plays of the day during Monday's practice.

As a result of the time spent as a unit this spring and fall, when it's all said and done, the Cougars' 2005 offensive line may actually be better than last year's version.

"Not only did we get to come together sooner, we're all really close off the field," said starting right guard Norvell Holmes. "We're all really good friends, and I think that helps us as a whole."

Holmes is all too familiar with what chaos up front can do to a team. Although he became a regular starter midway through '04, Holmes was one of the participants in what early on seemed like a weekly game of musical chairs at the starting guard spots, along with Bobby Byrd, Charles Harris and Riley Fitt-Chappell.

That inconsistency within the line revealed itself in black-and-white, as the Cougars posted embarrassing rushing statistics and gave up a high number of sacks heading into Pac-10 play.

Today, Holmes goes into the '05 season opener knowing for sure who he'll be lining up next to on the line. Nick Mihlhauser will start at center, the only senior on the line besides Holmes. Sean O'Connor is the left guard, while Byrd (left) and Harris (right) are the tackles.

Unlike in '04, there really haven't been any position battles this offseason, as these five have set themselves apart from the rest of the linemen.

Even though Byrd did well in his stint as a guard last year, the spotlight is now on him as the man charged with protecting quarterback Alex Brink's blind side from speedy defensive ends and/or linebackers.

Offensive line coach George Yarno said Byrd is naturally a tackle anyway, and Holmes added that Byrd has transitioned from guard to tackle quicker than anyone expected.

"As he gets older and gets experience, [Byrd] can be a dominant force in this league," Yarno said after yesterday's practice.

Yarno said Harris is a talented lineman who just needed to develop into an every-down player, which he has done this summer. And Holmes lauded O'Connor's athleticism; the 6-foot-5, 287-pounder actually saw some work at tight end last year.

"The pieces have fit together for this group since the spring," Yarno said. "Now we just have to see how we are in this first game and go from there."

* Husain Abdullah was back at practice, but didn't participate in any full-contact drills. The team released a depth chart for Thursday's game against Idaho, and junior-college transfer DeWayne Patterson is listed as the starting free safety.

* As expected, Fevaea'i Ahmu has won the starting defensive tackle job opposite Aaron Johnson.

* Former Cougar Jonathan Smith, a backup RB with the Kansas City Chiefs, has changed his name to McKenzi Smith. Running backs coach Kelly Skipper told the news on Monday, and the Chiefs website confirmed it. McKenzi is Smith's middle name.

Freshman linebacker Cory Evans leaped high and made a one-handed interception in the backfield on a floater thrown by Cole Morgan.

The whole team -- even those on the other practice field -- exploded in cheers after Scott Selby made a touchdown catch in the back of the end zone.

Rich Cellini will be on hand Thursday to call the action of the WSU-Idaho football game for FSN Northwest, while Cougar great Mark Rypien will provide the color commentary. FSN will go on the air at 6:30 p.m. with FSN Live and then begin game coverage with the kickoff at 7 p.m. FSN does not plan to provide game replays this fall for any of the Pacific Northwest teams.

Five Cougar games this season already have been slated for live television coverage by either ABC, FSN or ESPN, with more likely coming. The first is Thursday's opener with Idaho opener, followed next Friday with ESPN's broadcast of the Cougar game at Nevada, beginning at 7 p.m. ABC selected WSU's game at USC as its Pac-10 game of the week Oct. 29, and FSN will be on hand to televise WSU's home game with Oregon on Nov. 12 and then a week later in Seattle at the Apple Cup. Additional Pac-10 games could be chosen for live TV coverage, either 12 or six days in advance of the game, per the Pac-10 television contract.

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