Value of Yarno's system clear in face of woes

HAD THINGS TURNED OUT differently, George Yarno might be presenting closing arguments these days. Instead, he and his 2006 Cougar linemen are putting together a remarkable season. As fine a job as the offensive line coach did in '05, when Jerome Harrison ran for the fifth- most yards ever in the Pac-10 and sacks allowed were few and far between, the work he's done this season has been better.

Some might argue with that. But Washington State ranks third in the league in total offense. Pass protection, save for OSU, has been solid. Against a USC defense that came in having waxed Arkansas, Nebraska and Arizona, the Cougs won the battle up front. WSU has still scored more points against undefeated Southern Cal than anyone else this season.

And they've done it all with scant depth and youth aplenty.


Yarno gives instruction to the line on the sidelines

Yarno isn't comfortable with the praise, preferring to direct it elsewhere -- namely to Charles Harris, Sean O'Connor, Josh Duin, Bobby Byrd, Andy Roof, Kenny Alfred, Dan Rowlands, Derek Hunter and the entire o-line unit.

"I think it's really a tribute to the players," said Yarno. "We have 8, 10 kids that can really win in the Pac-10 and prepare to play like they're the starter, even if they're not...They have a passion for the game and they play with great effort and great intelligence."

OFFENSIVE LINES generally struggle when a starter goes down or even when a player moves to a different position. What is unique to Yarno and Washington State is that every offensive lineman has been versed in every other position in the trenches.


CHARLES HARRIS

Good thing, too. This season, only right tackle Harris has started every game at the same position and if Harris wasn't freakishly tough, he probably would have sat out a game by now what with a hyper-extended elbow, a badly sprained ankle or one of his other maladies. No fewer than three players have seen significant time at left tackle. At left guard, three more. Two at center, and three at right guard. Three of the players figuring in prominently are sophomores (Roof, Rowlands and Hunter), and one is a freshman (Alfred).

Yet through Week 8, WSU has allowed 1.88 sacks a game, as compared with 1.64 in 2005.

"The greatest compliment I can give George is not only are his players always prepared to play, but they are prepared to play all the offensive positions and that is a tremendous testament to his ability," said Robin Pflugrad, receivers coach at Oregon, who previously worked alongside Yarno at WSU and Arizona State.

The quintessential George Yarno
IN BOTH HIS FIRST stint at WSU and early on in his second, Monday morning quarterbacks were critical of Yarno's loud bark when upset with his hosses. Yarno, though, has never been afraid to speak his mind.

In Bud Withers' new book, "Washington State Cougars, Great Moments in Team History" now available in bookstores, the Seattle Times sportswriter relates the story of how George Yarno the player was at a team meeting, called by prickly and impersonal WSU head coach Jackie Sherrill to announce he was leaving after one season at Washington State ('76). Yarno had just completed his sophomore season, writes Withers, and according to teammate and future fellow Cougar assistant Mike Levenseller, Yarno stood and snarled four words at Sherrill:

"Get the hell out."

Sherrill left.

Fast forward to today. What those critical of Yarno's high decibel levels weren't aware of, though, is what goes on behind the scenes with Yarno and his players. Talking to Cougar offensive linemen, it's apparent they'd run through a wall for Yarno. It's equally apparent he'd do the same for them.

"I put football more in perspective (the last five years) than I ever have before -- but I'm very emotional and I'm very competitive," said Yarno. "I also know you have to enjoy the process and the kids have to have fun. I think maybe I've become a little softer off the field than I was before. On the field, I probably haven't changed a whole lot. If the kids know you care and are doing your best, it's easier for them to care and do their best. I just want to help them be the best they can be."

Even guys who aren't offensive linemen want to play for Yarno. Wide receiver Jason Hill said earlier this season he finds himself gravitating toward Yarno during practices, listening to and watching him coach.

TO GLEAN INSIGHT into Yarno's coaching philosophy, you have to start with Yarno the player. He not only played different positions, he did it on different sides of the ball. A two-time Pac-10 defensive honoree at Washington State, Yarno finished his career fifth all-time in tackles for the Cougs.

After college, he considered taking his criminal justice degree and heading to law school. Becoming an FBI agent was another aspiration. But the NFL had other plans for him. Yarno switched to the offensive side of the ball for his professional career -- and played 11 years in the NFL plus another two in the USFL.

Following his pro career, he and wife Cindy bought a sporting goods store in Spokane, his hometown. But every coach Yarno ever played for told him the same thing -- 'Go into coaching, you have a gift for it.' When Joe Tiller, then the offensive line coach at Washington State, moved on to become the head man at Wyoming in 1991, Mike Price asked Yarno to join his staff.

"I was never a graduate assistant so the things I learned, I learned at that (NFL) level," said Yarno. "I suppose I approach things much like an NFL coach. I want to make sure they understand what is going to happen to them defensively. The more you know about your opponent, the easier it is to understand what you need to do to be successful. You learn why they're doing what they're doing."

YARNO IS ALSO ONE one of the Cougs' best recruiters. He covers Orange County and San Diego. Prep and JC coaches there rave about him. He also has a keen eye for hidden talent. In his first stint at WSU, Yarno saw something in an undersized in-state linebacker prospect others did not. Husky coach Tyrone Willingham, then at Stanford, told the recruit he simply wasn't a Pac-10 player. Cougar great Steve Gleason is now in his seventh NFL season.

"I think George is as complete a coach as I've ever been around," said Pflugrad. "From all the technical aspects of offensive line play to his ability to recruit. He has a unique ability to identify players that can be molded into very successful players at the Pac-10 level. In my opinion, he's the whole enchilada."

Fevaea'i Ahmu, Derrell Hutsona, Dwight Tardy, Jed Collins are all Yarno recruits. A next generation of potential Cougar stars that Yarno ran the recruiting point on includes Toby Turpin, Trevor Mooney and Anthony Houston.

SUCCESS DIDN'T COME instantly for Yarno in his second stint at 'Ol Wazzu. In 2003, despite winning 10 games, and also in 2004, he looked exasperated more than once on the sidelines. His troops just weren't picking up his system. But in 2005, everything, and everyone, clicked.

Yarno's teachings take a little longer to learn but once the players get it, the game of football "slows down," as Yarno puts it. Harrison ran for 1,900 yards in 2005 while Cougar quarterbacks threw for 3,050 yards and were sacked a league-low 18 times. The development has continued on this season.

Cougar offensive linemen under Yarno go through a series of pre-snap reads so that before the play begins, they've already anticipated what's to come. The NFL, by the way, has taken notice since Yarno came back to WSU in '03.

He was a finalist for an NFL job last season. But more so is the talk about Yarno's players. Word around coaching circles is that the San Diego Chargers were thrilled to sign former Cougar center Nick Mihlhauser to their practice squad this year because he arrived at training camp so much further along than most. Sam Lightbody and Calvin Armstrong have spent time with the Bucs and Eagles, respectively. Four of Yarno's pupils from ASU went on to the NFL. And the two Cougar seniors on this year's line, Harris and O'Connor, will both get serious pro looks. Junior right tackle Byrd, with one more year of seasoning under Yarno, is poised to do the same in '08.

THE COUGS ENTERED the 2006 campaign with precious little depth and before they had even finished fall camp, had lost starting RG Andy Roof to a broken thumb. Ironic then, that at Oregon State three weeks ago, finally the healthiest Washington State had been all year on the line, the unit had perhaps their worst showing up front, surrendering five sacks and unable to generate a consistent running attack.


GEORGE YARNO

A week later, with Harris playing on a gimpy ankle that threatened to shelve him altogether, the Cougs generated only three points against Cal, and faltered repeatedly in the redzone.

The clash against Oregon thusly shaped up as a pivotal one for the WSU offensive line, and for the Cougs. They responded with four touchdowns (WSU's fifth was scored by the defense) in a 34-23 win. The Cougs, now No. 25 in the BCS rankings, are within one game of becoming bowl eligible.

The Cougs travel to UCLA on Saturday. And, as usual, injury lurks on offensive line. Roof's outlook is uncertain after leaving the Oregon game with a heel injury. And if he can't go Saturday, it's nothing Yarno and the line haven't dealt with and overcome more than once this season.

And from a long-term perspective, given the way the Cougars have played up front on the line this last year and a half, it might just be that the best is yet to come.


Yarno has been forced to reshuffle the offensive line continually over the first eight weeks. Yet Washington State is third in total offense, has a No. 25 ranking in the BCS standings and sits at 5-3 with all three losses coming to teams ranked in the Top 12.


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