PULLMAN --- Through four practices and a scrimmage, one thing is clear on the Palouse this spring: Mike Price wants his Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback to be in one piece when the 2002 regular season concludes in Hawaii.
Jason Gesser has racked up a mountain of air yardage so far in his Cougar career, but the fifth-year senior who figures to become the most prolific passer in WSU's prolific passing history also has racked up a ton of injuries. And the reason has nothing to do with frailty.
Gesser has the mentality of a linebacker. If he has the option of running out of abounds or gaining an extra yard by lowering his shoulder and plowing into people that weigh a lot more than he does, he goes full stream ahead.
In short, Jason Gesser doesn't take care of himself.
As a back up in 1999 he missed most of the season. As a starter in 2000, he broke a leg against Oregon in Week 9. And he absorbed untold amounts of punishment last season, culminating in a broken throwing hand that he played with in both the Apple Cup and Sun Bowl.
So this spring and again when fall camp opens in August, there's one word emanating from the practice field: SLIDE.
"Run out of bounds," is a term that's high the list as well.
As Price told the Tacoma New Tribune recently, "We need to keep him healthy, teach him how to slide and stay away from contact down the field. There are always going to be plays Jason makes and you catch your breath. He is that kind of player. He says he's been driving coaches nuts since I don't when."
Price's concern for Gesser's health is understandable. While the Cougars look to be a well-rounded bunch co-favored for the Pac-10 crown, the conference's history is unforgiving of inexperienced signal callers. Indeed, every Pac-10 champion over the last seven seasons has one thing in common: An experienced fourth- or fifth-year senior at the offensive helm.
If Gesser goes down, the Cougar destiny would fall to the hands of underachieving junior Matt Kegel or wet-behind-the-ears redshirt freshman Chris Hurd.
OTHER NOTES FROM SPRING BALL:
* With 12 guys competing for one starter's spot at running back, it looks like Jimmy Wilson, a true freshman who saw action last season, will be redshirted.
* Don't expect Jason David or Josh Parrish to make an appearance in uniform this spring. Cougar coaches are counting on these two starters in 2002, so aren't taking any chances they'll hit the academic wall this spring.
* Senior receiver Collin Henderson is practicing on Tuesdays and Wednesday with the football team and spending the rest of the week roaming the outfield for the Cougar baseball team.
*Receiver Marty Martin's six grabs – one for paydirt – during last Saturday's scrimmage becomes even more impressive when you learn he played half the day with a particularly nasty calf bruise. Bad enough, it turns out, that he was riding crutches at yesterday's practice.
*Safety Erik Coleman has been suspended for one week after being cited Saturday for Minor Operating Vehicle After Alcohol Consumption (minor DUI), a misdemeanor.
*When Jeremy Bohannon picked off a Gesser pass on Saturday and returned it 72 yards for a touchdown, it was the first – FIRST – spring interception ever thrown by the Hurlin' Hawaiian.
DAY FOUR: SCRIMMAGE ONE
PULLMAN - - As is usually the norm, defense ruled the day in WSU's first spring scrimmage Saturday in Martin Stadium.
Early spring scrimmages are almost always dominated by the defense, as the offense is still learning to gel together. Saturday was no exception, as neither the first nor second team offense managed a single touchdown against the top two defenses.
The only touchdowns of the day were scored by the No. 3 offense against the No. 3 defense -- the first a 1-yard run by Rafael Bolton, and the second a beautiful 60-yard pass from Josh Swogger to Marty Martin. Martin finished the day with 6 catches for 82 yards. Swogger connected on four of his six passes for 104 yards.
Although neither of the top two offenses could score, both moved the ball fairly well at times but couldn't punch it across the goal line. In fact, the No. 1 offense's best drive was their final one, their only drive against the No. 1 defense. The offense drove inside the 10, but a holding penalty stalled the drive.
Some news and notes from the first scrimmage:
Quarterback Matt Kegel, whose backup spot is said to be in danger from freshman Chris Hurd, had a solid scrimmage with the No. 2 offense. Despite facing the top defense, Kegel was able to move the offense well, making correct reads and audibles on the vast majority of his plays. He completed 10 of 15 passes for 65 yards; most of them short outs and crossing patterns. He appears to currently have a good hold on the backup quarterback job, as Hurd had some troubles with the offense. Hurd completed four passes in ten attempts for 37 yards.
Safety Jeremy Bohannon had perhaps the biggest play of the day, intercepting a Jason Gesser pass and returning it 72 yards for a touchdown, eluding several tacklers on the play. The sophomore from Richland is adjusting well to his role in the defense, and should provide a solid backup to Virgil Williams.
Gesser threw for 87 yards, hitting on eight of his 17 passes.
Jermaine Green turned some heads, showing off his lightning-quick speed in a 36-yard run against the No. 1 D that featured an amazing cutback across the defense. Every coach (particularly running backs coach Kasey Dunn) is positively giddy over Green's talent. He is still having trouble adjusting to the fundamentals of the offense, but his raw talent is unquestioned. With his speed, he could be a very dangerous target out of the backfield.
Senior running back John Tippins also had a good scrimmage, carrying the ball eight times for 67 yards and knocking over his share of defensive backs. He also had a great shoestring catch on a screen pass from Kegel, turning an apparent incomplete pass into a decent gain.
Devard Darling was a bit of an enigma in Saturday's scrimmage, catching two passes for 23 yards, but he also dropped two would-be touchdown passes. One was a picture perfect toss from Gesser on a timing pattern that should have been a 35-yard touchdown pass, but the ball went right through Darling's hands in the endzone. His problem does not appear to be bad hands; rather, he seems to lose concentration periodically, much like Nakoa McElrath did at times in 2001. With a little more focus paired with his amazing ability, Darling will be darn hard to stop.
Isaac Brown and freshman Bryan Boyer had the only sacks of the day, and Brown added a fumble recovery. Defensive tackle Jeremey Williams had a great day, recording two tackles for loss and a batted down pass.All-American candidate Rien Long also turned in a strong performance. The junior defensive tackle has been a blocker's worst nightmare so far this spring.
Mark Ahlberg appears to have the inside track to the starting tight end job. He had a solid day, making two great catches for 25 yards. His only problem is that he seems a little tentative at times, and reluctant to just lower his shoulder and hit someone.
Where have you gone Alex Johnson? Tomasi Kongaika, pressed into long snapping duty due to the Johnson's graduation and Mike Isaacson quitting the team, had a tough day on punts, failing to give Kyle Basler a single good snap in six attempts. His outing reiterated the importance of incoming freshman Billy Petrick, a long snapping specialist.
When Basler was able to get his punts off, he let them fly, booming a 62-yarder that ended up in the endzone. Despite being only 19 years old, there is talk around the team that Basler is already one of the strongest kickers in the country. Built like a linebacker, he should be fun to watch making tackles on his punts in '02.
The team will resume practice Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, and will have another scrimmage next Saturday.
PULLMAN - - The Cougars were in full pads for the first time of the spring Friday afternoon, giving the coaches a chance to see who the true players were. It also gave onlookers their first chance to watch JC transfers Jermaine Green and Kevin Sperry do some hitting.
Neither player disappointed. Sperry, currently at middle linebacker for the second string defense, showed an eagerness to knock heads whenever possible. He even got in a little skirmish with offensive lineman Calvin Armstrong during 9-on-7 drills, serving notice that even if he is the new guy, he won't be pushed around. Friday's practice was Sperry's first of the spring, as he took the first two days off to concentrate on his studies. Although he looked uncomfortable in the defense several times, that is something that will go away with more time in the system.
At running back, the difference between having pads on and wearing only a helmet can often be the difference in a great player and a good player. Anyone can hit the hole when there's no chance of being hit; great ones are never afraid to mix it up. Green appears to be one of those players. He showed no fear in any team drills, and although he did take some hard shots, he looks to be well on his way to being the team's No. 1 running back coming out of spring ball. With every practice that Allen Thompson misses to heal his ankle, Green gains a little more on him.
The team did a lot of work with running backs coming out of the backfield to catch passes Friday, and Green already looks to be a natural. He has great speed out of the backfield, has good hands, and put some great moves on defensive backs to get open.
Although the defensive secondary remains one of the team's big question marks, the current group appears to be in good shape, especially considering this is their first week together. Marcus Trufant and Erik Coleman are already proven commodities, while Virgil Williams and Karl Paymah look like they're ready to step up to the challenge. Paymah will not be starting in the fall (he is running with the No. 1 defense while Jason David sits out the spring to concentrate on school), but the reps he gets during April will be extremely valuable when the season rolls around and he's the team's No. 3 cornerback. Williams, meanwhile, looks very comfortable in the strong safety position. His talent has never been the issue; he's been good enough to play since he was a freshman. What will determine his success is his health, which has been spotty at best throughout his career. If he can stay healthy, the starting SS spot is his.
With Derrick Roche sitting out the spring after ankle surgery and Josh Parrish out for extra study time, Phil Locker and Sam Lightbody are currently working out with the starting offensive line (rounded out by Tyler Hunt, Billy Knotts and Armstrong). Among the other backups competing for playing time are Riley Fitt-Chappell, Mike Shelford and Steve Nelson.
On the other side of the ball, the defensive line is shaping up to be the strength of the defense in 2002. The starting four of Rien Long, Tai Tupai, Fred Shavies and D.D. Acholonu (or Isaac Brown) has the ability to clog the line of scrimmage or rush the quarterback, which will be a very big advantage for a defense with several unproven players at linebacker and defensive back. The tackle tandem of Long and Tupai may well be the best in the Pac-10 when all is said and done. Their playing styles complement each other, and with both ready to have breakout seasons, it will be extremely difficult to double-team either one of them.
Long made four "big plays" during Friday's practice, according to coach Mike Price. Each big play made throughout practice by any player means one less 40 to run at the end of practice.
In addition to the starters, the line has some very talented backups. With Jeremey Williams, Steve Cook and Brown (or Acholonu), coming off the bench, coaches Mike Walker and Robb Akey have a number of proven players they can plug in throughout the game to keep the line fresh. Josh Shavies may be a wild card at the position. Despite his troubles with the program, Shavies is a tremendous athlete who can adapt quickly and excel at defensive tackle – if the desire is there. He has shown an eagerness to learn, and has a good relationship with Walker.
The team will practice at 9 a.m. Saturday in Martin Stadium, with a scrimmage that will start somewhere between 9:30 and 10 a.m. That will give Cougar fans a chance to see some of the new additions to the team, as well as take a look at new punter Kyle Basler.
PULLMAN -- Mike Price joked recently that he was planning to launch Jason Gesser's Heisman Trophy campaign much the way Oregon pimped for Joey Harrington last year. But instead of a $250,000 billboard in Times Square, Price said he's thinking more along the lines of a $250 poster hanging from the largest grain elevator over in Dusty.
In other words, Gesser is going to have to earn his acclaim the old fashioned way: By performing on the field.
If the first two days of spring workouts on the Palouse are any indication of what's to come from the Hurlin' Hawaiian in the fall, Pac-10 defensive coordinators ought to be wary. Last year's 3,000 aerial yards and 26 TDs could prove to be just a warm up -- particularly given the amount of experienced beef he'll have protecting him up front.
Gesser is completely recovered from the broken hand that he secretly played with in the Apple Cup and Sun Bowl games. In fact, he's more than recovered. His arm appears stronger. His accuracy is downright scary, and his long ball is looking oh-so-sweet.
Through two days of non-contact workouts, the fifth-year-senior has put virtually every ball on target or nearly so. He's threading needles. He's hitting receivers in stride. The spirals are tight. The ball zips. Remarked one observer at the conclusion of Wednesday's workouts, "He looks amazing."
Also encouraging is the performance so far of junior back-up Matt Kegel. He's throwing the ball well, but more important, he appears very focused.
Price said a month ago that he plans to continue using Kegel in every game. But the rotation would be different than it was in 2001, when Kegel ran the first series at the start of every second quarter. "We're going to use the two-quarterback system unlike anybody in the nation," Price said, without offering specifics.
In other news from spring camp:
* Sophomore running back Allen Thompson on Wednesday tweaked the same ankle that he injured against Stanford last season. He sat out the second-half of practice, which pushed senior John Tippins into the No. 1 RB spot.
* Sophomore Mark Ahlburg and grayshirt freshman Troy Bienneman look to duke it out for starting chores at tight end ahead of redshirt freshman Adam West. Ahlburg currently is running No. 1 but Bienneman really likes to knock heads so expect a fight down to the wire. Additional competition for the job will arrive in August with touted former Tulane player Eddie Robinson and possibly former Cougar Russell Mizin. Mizin came out of spring ball last season as the No. 1 tight end but hit academic troubles and never returned. Price says Mizin is attending a junior college in the hopes of qualifying for a return to Pullman. Tim Burnette, thought to be a contender for the TE job this spring, announced that he is quitting in order to pursue basketball at a Division III school.
* Price appears to be taking no chances this season with his players' academic eligibility. Last year he lost two guys who came out of spring ball as starters -- Mizin and linebacker Curtis Holden. So far this week, DB Jason David, MLB Kevin Sperry and OL Josh Parrish haven't stepped onto the field in deference to the books. David is expected to sit out all spring, while Sperry and Parrish are expected to suit up soon.
* All-conference guard Derrick Roche has been absent from workouts so far, believed nursing a nagging leg injury of some kind. Senior Phil Locker has been running with the first team in Roche's place.
* With Alex Johnson graduated and back up Mike Issacson passing up his final year of eligibility in order to graduate on time, the Cougars are in serious need of a long snapping specialist. Right now the man in the crouch is Tomasi Kongaika, the one-time starting DT who's been nursing a bum knee for the last year. Troy Bienneman is backing him up. So far, neither is making folks forget about Johnson, which means that incoming freshman Billy Petrick of suburban Chicago may have a golden opportunity to contribute when he arrives in August. Petrick's ball delivery times in high school were on par with some NFL long snappers. Little wonder -- the kid also throws a 94 mph fastball.
* Friday will be the first day the Cougars don pads and start knocking heads. A scrimmage will be held Saturday morning.
PULLMAN -- There was one notable surprise and a little head turning on Tuesday as Mike Price opened spring workouts with the first of 15 practices that will be held between now and April 27.
One player notable by his absence was starting cornerback Jason David. He is expected to sit out the entire spring to concentrate on his studies. Sophomore Karl Paymah took his spot in the starting lineup.
On offense, receiver Devard Darling -- obviously well studied over the winter in the ways of the offense --- impressed many during Tuesday's practice. The former Florida State blue chipper beat his man several times during 1-on-1 drills, and ran some great routes during skeleton and team drills. He even blew by speedster DB Cole Sheridan in a 1-on-1 drill, showing off his 4.39/40 quickness.
A player who bears watching (even if he won't be seeing the field for at least another year) is grayshirt quarterback Josh Swogger. In his first practice as a Cougar, the former prep player of the year from Ohio turned heads with his strong arm. He throws a nice long ball, and is extremely sound fundamentally on his dropback. If one practice is any indication (of course, it never is, but it's fun to speculate), it appears Price has another good one in his legendary QB pipeline.
At running back, sophomore-to-be Allen Thompson is currently No. 1 , but JC transfer Jermaine Green proved in Tuesday's practice that Thompson won't get the job without a fight. Green showed great quickness and has the looks of a very solid runner. His ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and pick up blitzes may be the deciding factor in whether he can wrestle the No. 1 spot away from Thompson.
Back to the defense: While the projected starters at linebacker -- Al Genatone, Pat Bennett and Ira Davis -- are a little young and smaller than some Cougar LB units of the past, they do excel in at least one area: Athleticism.
These guys really get around the field. Although Davis has made the full-time transition to linebacker, the quickness he showed previously at safety is still clearly part of his game. Bennett and Genatone also are among the most agile and athletic on the team. In short, the threesome won't have any trouble defending against the pass.
The run, however, may be a different story. These fellas won't break any scales with their girth, or lack of, so may have some trouble stopping the run. With the incredibly stout defensive line, though, they'll get plenty of help.
- It was announced that redshirt freshman tight end Tim Burnette, a contender to start, is leaving to play basketball at NAIA Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, Calif.
- Linebacker Kevin Sperry missed the first day of practice to concentrate on academics. Unlike David, he is expected to participate this spring.
And so began the glorious 2002 Cougar football campaign...