Spring countdown: A new day at tight end

TROY BIENEMANN IS HEADED to the NFL. Cody Boyd, his successor in the Cougars' starting line up, is recovering from foot surgery that will shelve him for all of spring workouts. And their position coach for the last five years is now tutoring receivers in the Willamette Valley.

When spring ball starts up March 21, the man with the whistle will be Greg Peterson and the first three spots on his depth chart will be held by players who caught a combined two passes for the Cougars last season.

Boyd, whose fourth quarter magic in the Apple Cup hinted at his huge potential, is expected to be back to full health in June. Until then, center stage belongs to senior Jesse Taylor, sophomore Ben Woodard and JC transfer Jason Price.

Peterson, their new position coach, hasn't previously coached tight ends in 16 years as a college assistant, but he's certainly no stranger to what it's all about. In 12 years at Kansas State -- 10 of which ended in bowl games -- he variously served as the Wildcats' receivers coach, passing game coordinator and co-offensive coordinator.

WITH BOYD SIDELINED, the 6-3, 247-pound Taylor will enter spring ball listed as the No. 1 tight end. He's played in 27 games over the last three seasons, but almost exclusively in double-tight end schemes and blocking situations. He has two career receptions for 15 yards.

Taylor was a big prize for the Cougars coming out of West Hills, Calif., back on Signing Day 2002. A star fullback at Chaminade College Prep, Taylor had the hands, blocking ability and speed. Scout.com listed him as the No. 10 prep tight end prospect in the country.

He came out of fall camp No. 2 on the depth chart his freshman season but broke a bone in his hand in the opener and missed the rest of the season. It was a harbinger of things to come, with Taylor fighting through nagging injuries every year since.

But he's also taken the opportunity to become one of the key members on WSU's special teams. With plenty of talent, the biggest obstacle facing Taylor is simply staying healthy.

WOODARD FOUND HIMSELF as the No. 2 tight end in the Apple Cup when Bienemann's career ended with a torn ACL on a touchdown catch against Oregon the week before. Woodard, (6-5, 237) even caught a pass against the Huskies. The one-time Mormon missionary has followed a circuitous path to WSU.

A two-way All-State performer at Cheney High, he initially verballed with Brigham Young but then switched gears when WSU pushed hard for him. Woodard signed his letter of intent with WSU in 2001 and then headed out for two years on his mission. He returned in 2004 and promptly blew a knee, forcing him to redshirt that season.

The sophomore-to-be showed steady improvement in practice throughout last season. His problem in earning playing time, like Taylor, was that he played behind a couple guys named Bienemann and Boyd. His value to this point has been on special teams, where he played in all 11 games last season.

The book on former Seattle Times red chipper is that he's a good blocker. His playing time will depend on how he's developed physically this offseason, and especially on how far he's come on route running and pass catching.

THE SAME COULD be said for Price, the Texan junior college transfer who has been in Pullman since January.

Built like Zeus at 6-foot-4 and 256 pounds, Price got the ball thrown to him at Trinity Valley about as often as it snows in Texas. But he ran through some passing drills this past winter with Pflugrad and Leon Burtnett in attendance and a month or so later, he was in Pullman.

The possibilities with Price are endless. Not many are 6-foot-4, over 250 pounds and run a 4.6 in the 40. He squats 575, bench presses 390 and has a 31 inch vertical.

His job thus far has been to lay guys out but the Cougars will be looking to add to his list of duties. If Peterson can help develop Price's pass catching and route running, he could become a force.

PETERSON IS WELL known and respected throughout the college football ranks. During his tenure at K-State, Peterson coached all four of the 1,000-yard receivers in program history.

A number of players under his watch etched their names in the K-State record book, including running back Darren Sproles and receivers Quincy Morgan, James Terry, Darnell McDonald, Taco Wallace and Aaron Lockett. All are now playing professionally.

He also showed balance during the Wildcats' 2003 Big 12 championship season, helping to direct an attack that ranked No. 9 in the nation in rushing and scoring, and was one of only seven schools in the land to average more than 200 yards a game rushing and 200 passing.

ONE OF THE TRUISMS for the Cougar offense over the past few years is when the tight end is working, everything else clicks on the Cougar offense. When it isn't, the WSU attack grinds to a halt. From slants to sweeps to everything in between, when the tight ends do the job, the Cougars own the field.

Up and down last season's stat sheet, the offensive numbers are maddening. In the game that started the frustration that was the 2005 season, 638 yards on offense against Oregon State -- but only 33 points to show for it. Bienemann had a 26 yard reception in the game's opening moments. He didn't catch another pass until the game was tied 30-all in the fourth quarter.

Not to say it was the offense that lost seven games, far from it. The defensive calamities were legion. But the offense, so prolific in spots, also faltered at crucial junctures. Many of those came when the tight end disappeared from the WSU arsenal.

Beginning next week, a new tight ends coach and new tight ends corps will take the field out on the Palouse, with the opportunity to lay the groundwork for success.

Walk-on Tony Thompson will also be competing for playing time. The 6-1, 234 pounder has improved all his strength numbers and increased his vertical leap to 33 1/2 inches. He's also a leading candidate for the long snapper job.

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