2006 Cougar football outlook on offense

PULLMAN -- Jerome Harrison will be gone. Will Derting too. And Jason Hill's future is uncertain. Yet optimism reigns on the Palouse as all eyes look for a Cougar rebound in 2006. With seven starters returning on offense (that includes Hill) and seven on defense, plus some touted up-and-comers eager to fill in those open spots, the Cougar renaissance forecast for the just-concluded season may just be a year behind schedule. In the first of a two-part series, we look today at the offense.

Notable losses: FB Brandon Asuega-Stark, TE Troy Bienemann, RB Jerome Harrison, WR Trandon Harvey, OG Norvell Holmes, WR Marty Martin, C Nick Mihlhauser, WR Greg Prator, QB Josh Swogger.

Top returnees: TE Cody Boyd, QB Alex Brink, WR Michael Bumpus, OT Bobby Byrd, FB Jed Collins, WR Brandon Gibson, OT Charles Harris, WR Jason Hill, WR Chris Jordan, OG Sean O'Connor.

Up-and-comers: C Kenny Alfred, OL Josh Duin, OL Spencer Hollison, OL Derek Hunter, RB Kevin McCall, QB Gary Rogers, OL Andy Roof, OL Dan Rowlands, RB Dwight Tardy, TE Jesse Taylor, WR Benny Ward, RB DeMaundray Woolridge.

Look for: Junior-to-be Alex Brink endured a season full of

Alex Brink

second-guessing from the media, fans and message boarders. He persevered, though, putting up solid numbers and keeping his job from opening day through the game-winning final drive in the Apple Cup. For the season, Brink completed 57.2 percent of his passes for 2,891 yards and 24 touchdowns versus 13 interceptions. While his win-loss percentage won't win over detractors, Brink did spearhead a prolific offense that averaged just more than 33 points and 489 yards of total offense per game. With Swogger's move to a Division 1-AA school, Brink's job finally looks to be secure. The next man in line is sophomore-to-be Gary Rogers, a Central Casting quarterback who is big-armed, throws one of the prettiest balls ever seen out on the Palouse but is not as mobile as Brink. The third-stringer will be freshman Arkelon Hall, who redshirted in 2005 and ran the scout-team offense. Hall is another strong-armed passer but he isn't as much of a scrambler as is Brink.

The questions: The backfield loses Harrison, who takes his 1,900 yards and 16 touchdowns to the NFL. Who will tote the rock now that The Ghost is a memory? There will be a three-way battle between sophomore-to-be DeMaundray Woolridge, redshirt freshman Dwight Tardy and junior Kevin McCall. Woolridge has the upper hand going into spring ball, and while the 5-foot-8, 223-pound sparkplug did have two breakout performances in non-conference cakewalks against Nevada and Grambling, he didn't see much daylight behind workhorse Harrison. Woolridge is a north-south power runner, and while he has some open-field moves, is nowhere near the slippery runner Harrison is. Tardy received rave reviews from coaches on a weekly basis as a scout-team standout, and McCall looked fantastic in practice when he wasn't injured. Jed Collins is the only returning fullback on the roster, but the Cougars rarely utilized the position this year.

Before evaluating the Cougars' receiving corps, one major question remains unanswered. After rewriting the school's record books in essentially two seasons, Jason Hill is contemplating an early move to the NFL.

Brandon Gibson

Should Hill stay, he would form a lethal receiving unit with Michael Bumpus, Brandon Gibson and Chris Jordan. If he leaves, Brink's favorite target is gone and -- if 2005 was any indication -- so is the Cougars' downfield passing game. Whenever Hill wasn't on the field, WSU's passing offense morphed into a dink-and-dunk operation that rarely went deep --- and even then, the primary target was now-departed Greg Prator. Gibson, however, showed flashes of being a deep threat before an ankle injury grounded him. Bumpus had made an astonishing turnaround as a true receiver and not just as a speedster with moves. If he maintains that progress, he will assume the role of go-to guy if Hill goes pro. Jordan is dependable, if unspectacular given his knee troubles. The senior-to-be was an opening day starter, but eventually gave way to Gibson, who is big and fast but inconsistent. Benny Ward could also play his way into the mix, but has to get stronger and stay focused.

It was said that departing senior Troy Bienemann was among the nation's elite tight ends, but no one who watched WSU play this season would've known it. Bienemann was a forgotten man in ‘05, catching just 24 passes. Bienemann was a much improved and effective run blocker, however, and helped spring Harrison on many big runs. His replacement will be Cody Boyd, whose late-game clutch catches in the Apple Cup overshadowed two drops earlier in the contest. Everyone has lauded Boyd's size and athleticism since he arrived in Pullman, but his production hasn't matched the hype. Anyone who's seen a Cougars practice in recent years knows that Boyd can drop ‘em like they're hot potatoes one day, then play like an All-Pro the next. Also in the mix at tight end will be Jesse Taylor and Ben Woodard.

Charles Harris

Three starters return on the Cougars' O-line: right tackle Charles Harris, left guard Sean O'Connor and left tackle Bobby Byrd. But without the heart (center Nick Mihlhauser) and soul (right guard Norvell Holmes) coming back, who will step up and keep this unit as cohesive as they were in ‘05? While not as talented on paper as previous WSU O-lines, this season's group paved the way for Harrison's record-breaking campaign and kept defenders away from their quarterback better than all but one Pac-10 team. Byrd is the youngest of the returning trio, and universally regarded as the most talented. Harris and O'Connor will be seniors and were rock solid this year -- so expect them to do their best Mihlhauser and Holmes impersonations in keeping the line together. The battle to replace Holmes figures to be waged between Andy Roof and Dan Rowlands, while Kenny Alfred and Josh Duin will battle it out at center.

Keys to the season:The Cougar offense began and ended with Harrison, with a dash of Hill to keep things interesting. Think back to any of the past 11 games: how often did third-and-long situations result in either a draw to Harrison, a toss sweep to Harrison, or a receiver screen to Hill? With Harrison definitely gone and Hill possibly gone, who is going to pick up the slack? Will head coach Bill Doba and offensive coordinator Mike Levenseller entrust a sophomore like Woolridge with 30-plus carries a game? Should Hill leave, will Brink have the confidence to go to the remaining receivers when it's time to go beyond 10 yards? Will Brink start looking for the tight end with greater regularity? Can an inexperienced center adequately replace the brainy Mihlhauser in calling the O-line's shots? Answers to these questions and more will start to get answered when spring ball commences in March. The results will go far in determining whether the Cougars return to post-season play.

Tomorrow: Previewing the 2006 defense, special teams and schedule

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