Coug walk-on a study in overcoming adversity

TO PUT A TWIST on an old adage, Kevin Baffney is a linebacker with a quarterback's mentality. The 6-2, 215-pounder -- an invited walk-on to Washington State this fall -- was the star signal caller on DeSales' undefeated 2B state championship team this past year. He had always wanted to be a Coug but a devastating personal loss three years ago is what really helped him to define that goal.

Tyler Baffney, Kevin's older brother and a 2003 graduate of Washington State, died at age 25 from a brain aneurysm in 2005. A prolific receiver at DeSales who wasn't quite big enough to play Pac-10 ball, Ty nevertheless cut a large figure on and off the football field -- there are still people to this day at Washington State who wear a t-shirt bearing his likeness to Cougar football games.

The football field at DeSales was also renamed in his honor. Not surprisingly, Tyler's influence on his younger brother was profound.

"It was huge," said Baffney. "He was nine years older than me so he was pretty much the guy I looked up to all my life."

And he still is.

"I'd go out there to the cemetery every Friday before the games and have a little talk with him about what we had to get done, the team, the game plan," said Baffney.

Baffney's father also graduated from Wazzu, and it was Kevin's first and only choice when it came to deciding on a college.

"I told Kevin I was getting some calls from other schools (like Idaho) and if he wanted to go for a cut and dried scholarship, he might want to look at some other schools," DeSales coach Mike Speiss said. "But he just said, 'No. I want to be a Cougar,' and that was pretty much that."

BUT THERE hadn't been a lot of interest coming back from Washington State through the middle part of the recruiting year. After the coaching change, Baffney was able to eventually get in touch the co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball and get his tape to him.

Film of Baffney on defense, offense and as DeSales' kicker and punter, played well in the Bohler Gym offices and Ball invited Baffney up to watch a spring practice.

"Having wanted to be a Coug for so long, just walking into the locker room was pretty cool," said Baffney.

"As soon as (Travis Niekamp and Ball) saw film on him, they were very prompt in their response," said Speiss.

At the end of the spring practice, Ball told Baffney the Cougs were offering him an invitation to fall camp as an invited walk-on. Ball told him to take a couple days and to think about it.

"I got in the car to leave and I don't think I was out of Pullman before I made my decision," said Baffney.


BAFFNEY WAS THE UNANIMOUS Class 2B Player of the Year in '07. He got most of his notice for his work as quarterback but as an opposing coach recently noted, opponents also wanted to know where Baffney was lining up on defense and be sure they had accounted for him before the snap.

He'll be coming to Washington State to play linebacker, a position he played his freshman through junior seasons before moving to more of safety role as a senior on defense.

"Coach Ball, he asked what position I was looking to play and I told him linebacker, even though I know my mom really wanted me to play quarterback...I like to hit. I just think it's the best fit...I'm also going to a long snapping camp this summer. I'm just trying to make myself more valuable. I don't know, it might also go down that road for me (punting). I can kick it around a little bit," said Baffney.

PAUL WULFF HAS said one of his priorities in building the program is to field the best walk-on program in the state. How Wulff identifies walk-on targets is pretty much the same as he does the scholarship student athletes -- with an emphasis on talent, character and drive.

Speiss says the Cougs have that kind of player in Baffney but there was a bump in the road after his brother died.

"Usually with a kid like Kevin with a great work ethic, we start pushing them to the college guys during their junior season but Kevin was trying to search through things after what happened to his brother leading up to his junior year -- athletics and other things took a back seat," said Speiss. "Then he got hurt six weeks into his junior year. We never really got into the whole recruiting game with Kevin..(Last summer), that's when he decided and said,' This is what I want to do, I want to be a Cougar'.

The other part of the walk-on equation is that as they are trying to earn that scholie, they can still have a significant impact -- the better the walk-ons and redshirts on the scout team, the better the competition and the "look" the first-teamers get headed into each Saturday's contest.

"He's very smart, Kevin understands football," said Speiss. "And he likes to hit. He understands the run game and the pass game from the offensive side, so that helps him with his reads on defense.

"He's a young man who has faced a lot of challenges and he's answered those challenges in the right way. We felt blessed as coaches to be around him because we learned a lot from him on ho to deal with adversity. We'll miss him this year but I'm happy he's a Coug."

THE COUGS HAVE had a number of players over the years begin their careers as walk-ons, earn a scholarship and become significant contributors -- five starters on the 1998 Rose Bowl team alone, Shawn Tims, Cory Withrow, Todd Nelson, Lee Harrison and Rian Lindell, all walked on at WSU.

"I'm coming in at a good time with the new coaching staff. There's no favorites. I've just got to go in there and show them what I can do...I just want to get in there and get after it, knock some heads," said Baffney.

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