Spring ball countdown: RB, OL battles loom

THE 2006 WSU FOOTBALL season effectively kicks off in less than two months with the start of spring workouts. Two of the most pressing off-season questions have been answered favorably: The biggest playmakers this side of Jerome Harrison – Jason Hill and Michael Bumpus – will be back in uniform. With seven starters back, the Cougar O – one of the most prolific in the nation last year – looks to reload, not rebuild. The most spirited position battles will be in the trenches and at running back.

Gone from the '05 offense that ranked among the nation's top 10 with 499.5 yards per game are Harrison and fellow starters Troy Bienemann (TE), Trandon Harvey (WR), Norvell Holmes (RG) and Nick Mihlhauser (C).

In addition to Hill and Bumpus, the Cougars return starters Alex Brink (QB), Bobby Byrd (LT), Charles Harris (RT), Sean O'Connor (OG) and Chris Jordan (WR), plus two others who saw a lot of PT last year -- senior tight end Cody Boyd and sophomore receiver Brandon Gibson.

At center, two big bodies will be vying to replace Mihlhauser, a three-year starter who was a second-team All-Pac-10 choice in 2005. The contenders are second-year freshman Kenny Alfred (6-3, 294) and senior Josh Duin (6-4, 305). Alfred drew rave reviews from Doba last fall as a redshirt and Duin is a one-time walk-on whose progress earned him a scholie last year.

At right guard, where Holmes was as steady as rain in Seattle, the battle should be waged between third-year sophomores Andy Roof (6-3, 316) and Dan Rowlands (6-5, 284). The two touted members of the 2004 recruiting class saw limited playing time behind Holmes and Harris in 2005. Derek Hunter, coming to WSU last year from Fullerton College, is still but a sophomore. He has 3-to-play-3 after using a redshirt year in '05, and could also contend.

RUNNING BACK WILL BE a three-man race this spring among sophomore DeMaundray Woolridge, second-year freshman Dwight Tardy and fourth-year junior Kevin McCall. But the competition will grow in a big way in August with the expected arrival of five RBs from the new class of recruits.

Woolridge was Harrison's backup last season and piled up 323 yards on 52 carries, primarily in early season action. Tardy redshirted. And McCall was hampered much of the campaign with leg injuries, but performed well in practice when healthy.

Woolridge, at 5-8 and 215, isn't tall but he's quick and tough and showed glimpses of big-time talent in his modest rookie debut. Tardy (5-10, 200) offers a nice blend of power and speed and could be poised to turn heads this spring. He was slowed in the early going of 2005 by a hamstring injury and didn't get a chance to show off the athleticism that allowed him to average more than 9 yards per carry as a prep senior.

For McCall, the elder statesman of the backfield, the spring session could be one of his last bids for significant playing time. He missed all of spring ball 2005 in the aftermath of a fourth-degree assault charge and then went down with a high ankle sprain two weeks before the season opener.

"My motto for this spring is to go above and beyond – in school, workouts, nutrition, everything," said the 5-11, 209-pound all-academic performer. "I need to do well in the spring, because we have a lot of people coming in the fall. I need to establish myself now."

He said the competition with Woolridge and Tardy isn't something he dwells on. "The only thing I can worry about is getting myself prepared. They're both hard workers and great competitors – I don't think we view each other as competition – we're just looking to get on the field whenever we can to help the team."

WHILE THE COUGARS' TOP four receivers are established in Hill, Bumpus, Jordan and Gibson, the one-back offense requires a bevy of talent on the flanks. Sophomores Benny Ward and Scott Selby are the only other scholarship players returning from last year's depth chart so they figure to get plenty of turns in the spring.

So will 6-6 JC transfer Finas Rabb and 6-4 grayshirt Greg Walker, each of whom enrolled at WSU last month. They'll plan to make serious hay this spring because the receiving corps gets a nice boost in depth come August with the arrival of four-star JC transfer Charles Dillon and prep standouts Anthony Houston and Keith Rosenberg.

While second-team All-Pac-10 performer Troy Bienemann is graduated, tight end should be a position of strength for the 2006 Cougars. Boyd (6-8, 257) is a major talent as long as he can stay healthy and his backup, Jesse Taylor (6-3, 240), has seen considerable action over the last two seasons. JC transfer Jason Price (6-4, 256) arrived on campus this month with a reputation as a first-rate blocker and has been identified by coaches as someone who could contribute immediately.

WITH JOSH SWOGGER'S TRANSFER to Montana, the position that everyone was watching intently last spring -– quarterback -- is now a picture of serenity. Brink, a 6-2, 212-pound junior, is da man. He has 16 consecutive starts to his name, along with 31 career TD passes and nearly 4,200 career passing yards. Sophomore Gary Rogers will be No. 2 behind center. He took only a handful of real-game snaps last season but shapes us as a gamer with great size (6-5, 241) and a powerful arm. Second-year freshmen Arkelon Hall and Cole Morgan will round out the group.

* Spring practices begin on March 21 and will conclude with the annual spring game on April 15.

* Besides Swogger, another familiar face will not be back: fifth-year senior-to-be offensive lineman Spencer Hollison. In search of more playing time, he's headed to a Division I-AA school. Cougar head coach Bill Doba said last week that Hollison has not yet announced where.

COMING LATER THIS WEEK: Spring preview of the Cougar D

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