Forget Stewart, WSU frosh really producing

PULLMAN -- When Oregon edged Washington State in an exhausting recruiting battle for Timberline High running back Jonathan Stewart, the assumption was the Ducks were picking up a player who would make an immediate impact. And while Stewart has contributed to the 11th-ranked Ducks, the Cougars truly are the team whose true freshmen on offense are the ones really standing out in the crowd.

In seven games with Oregon, Stewart has rushed for 134 yards and four touchdowns on 34 carries, caught five passes for 37 yards and one touchdown, and returned a kickoff 83 yards for a touchdown. His stats aren't going to make anyone in Eugene forget Onterrio Smith just yet, but with standout Terrence Whitehead playing in the same backfield, Stewart's opportunities have not been plentiful. The freshman also missed two games with an ankle injury.

Bottom line, it's impossible to find anyone at Oregon (8-1 overall, 5-1 in the Pac-10) who isn't thoroughly impressed with Stewart's progress in his rookie season. Stewart will get a chance to show his home-state fans that progress when the Ducks come to Martin Stadium on Saturday.

For the Cougars (3-6, 0-6), losing out on Stewart overshadowed a solid 2005 recruiting haul, especially at the offensive skill positions.

Running back DeMaundray Woolridge was the first new Cougar to make an impression on game days. In Week 2 against Nevada, Woolridge entered the game when WSU was comfortably ahead and proceeded to rip off 133 yards and one score on 15 carries, including a 70-yard run. The performance was also noteworthy because it was the only time a WSU runner not named Jerome Harrison led the team in rushing this season.

Woolridge bolstered the buzz surrounding him the next week against Grambling, gaining 105 yards on 18 carries. Woolridge hasn't seen a lot of game action since then, however, and his season totals add up to 51 carries, 314 yards and two scores. Woolridge has also filled in as a part-time kick returner, but after some poor decision-making against Arizona State, probably won't be fielding any kicks for the remainder of the year.

At 5-foot-8 and 223 pounds, Woolridge is a powerfully-built back; for those who remember, he is actually built like WSU running backs coach Kelly Skipper, an All-American at Fresno State in the 1980s. Skipper constantly praises Woolridge's ability to hit holes quickly and with burst.

"He runs hard -- he runs physical," Skipper said of the Texas native. "He runs with some power behind him, and he has a great feel for the game."

Woolridge isn't the open-field terror that Harrison is, but can be used as an effective change-of-pace back with Harrison and would be useful in short-yardage situations. Next season, with Harrison gone, Woolridge is the front-runner to be the Cougars featured back.

But close behind him will be Dwight Tardy, who is redshirting this season and thus has not seen any game action. But almost every week, head coach Bill Doba heralds Tardy's performance on the scout team. At 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, Tardy has thick, powerful legs, but runs with a smoothness of a smaller back. Every time the Cougars have faced one of the Pac-10's elite running backs -- be it USC's Reggie Bush, Cal's Marshawn Lynch or UCLA's Maurice Drew --- Tardy has been an adequate thespian in his scout-team portrayals of that particular star.

The freshman who has contributed the most on the field, however, has been wide receiver Brandon Gibson. A local product from Puyallup's Rogers High, Gibson has been a fill-in starter when injuries caused regular starters Jason Hill, Michael Bumpus and Chris Jordan to miss games. In total, Gibson has amassed 172 yards and two touchdowns on nine receptions for an impressive average of 19 yards per catch. He has also been one of WSU's regular deep men on kickoff returns, averaging a little more than 18 yards per return.

"Brandon has had an opportunity to play, and he looked great in training camp," said receivers coach and offensive coordinator Mike Levenseller. "He's really knuckled down in the last three weeks and done some good things."

Gibson's most glaring flaw at this point is inconsistency. There are days when he looks like a future NFL Pro Bowler: running razor-sharp routes, leaping high for toe-tapping sideline catches, blowing past defensive backs easily and showcasing a set of hands that would make Marvin Harrison proud. But then the next day, Gibson will drop the easiest of passes thrown to him and have problems getting off the line in press coverage.

A receiver who came to Pullman with just as much promise as Gibson is California native Benny Ward. At 6-foot-3 and 186 pounds, Ward has the size of an elite receiver -- though he could stand to gain some weight --- and at times in spring practice and fall drills looked like someone who could make a major contribution as a rookie. But somewhere along the way, Ward?s progress tabled. While Gibson has flirted with the limelight as an occasional starter, Ward seems firmly entrenched on the third unit of receivers, with rare promotions to the second-string. He has played in games this year, but doesn't have any catches to show for it.

"Benny keeps battling, and he's learning our system," Levenseller said. "He needs to create opportunities for himself in the spring." At the most high-profile skill position -- quarterback -- the Cougars have a glut of young players, two of them true freshmen. But with starting quarterback Alex Brink just a redshirt sophomore and third-stringer Gary Rogers a redshirt freshman, who knows when true frosh Arkelon Hall and Cole Morgan will ever get a legit chance to take snaps in real games.

If this season has been any indication, though, Hall will be the first man to take those snaps. The Fresno, Calif., native stands 6-foot-1 and now weighs 211 pounds after losing 13 pounds over the course of the season. Hall, who is redshirting, plays like a poor man's Daunte Culpepper, with a very strong throwing arm and decent scrambling ability. He has spent his rookie season on the scout team, working out the kinks in his slightly-delayed delivery and improving his footwork and ability to read a defense.

Morgan is also a scout team player, who grayshirted after signing with WSU out of Ballard High School in Seattle. Against the Cougars starting defense Morgan has struggled, throwing more interceptions to the first-teamers than Hall. But while Morgan's arm strength is so-so, his strong points are reading defenses, and he runs better than his freshman counterpart.

"Just wait" has been a common phrase heard around this Washington State team. Just wait until 2007, when this year's true freshman are juniors and/or redshirt sophomores, turning this year?s potential into that year's production.

PRACTICE NOTES:
With Gibson missing this week's game due to a hip injury, Levenseller said there aren't any receivers behind the freshman who will get more playing time as a result. Levenseller said the receivers who have been playing will just see more snaps, namely Jordan and Trandon Harvey.

Linebacker Will Derting and defensive tackle Ropati Pitoitua were at practice, but as it was a no-pads, walk-through day, didn't do a whole lot.

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