Cougar offensive line primer

THE COUGARS RETURN in 2008 four starting offensive linemen, usually a recipe for success in the the Pac-10. And Kenny Alfred is indeed a very big bright spot for the Cougars up front. So why weren't Paul Wulff and new o-line coach Harold Etheridge smiling more often during the offseason? And which position figures to see the highest pitched starter's battle beginning on August 5?

That would be at the offensive tackle spot. And the answer to the preceding question is that even though the Cougars lose only one starter in Bobby Byrd, the offensive line unit simply did not perform up to the expectations of Wulff and Etheridge during the 15 days of spring ball.

One thing to keep an eye on -- if Dan Rowlands gets significant work out at tackle during camp. That was the area Wulff and Etheridge were most concerned with this spring.

Indeed, if Vaughn Lesuma and Micah Hannam don't nail down the starting bookend spots in August, one of them could move inside and Rowlands could line up on out on the edge. And there's another possibility as well.

You could also see Rowlands stay inside but Joe Eppele instead beat out one of the starting tackles in fall camp.

Or, of course, Lesuma and Hannam might each show significant gains and solidify their starting roles.

AND ALL THIS ISN'T TO say there weren't individual and unit bright spots this spring. There were.

And with Wulff, an award winning four year starting center at Wazzu during his playing days, it bears to keep in mind that the bar for satisfaction with an o-line's performance is always going to be high.

Center Alfred had an excellent spring session and was singled out for praise from Wulff -- significant given Wulff's background. The other returning starters, Hannam, Lesuma and Rowlands, and along with Andrew Roxas, the likely starting addition in place of Byrd, also have the wherewithal and ability to become great players, says Wulff. But they're not quite there yet.

Alfred, as good as he is heading into fall camp, also still has plenty of space to cross before he hits his ceiling. But one great player does not a great offensive line make.

First and foremost, the Cougar hosses need to better grasp the new schemes of Etheridge. And that's not all that surprising either, having only had a single spring session under the new coach. It can take a while for an o-lineman to transition to a new system and former coach George Yarno's schemes were certainly unique.

But the Cougs will need to make full use of fall camp up front in that regard -- after the starting group, the lack of depth and size is glaring.

LESUMA, IN WULFF's words, has all the God-given ability in the world and he can, emphasize the word "can", play on Sundays. But he needs to be in better fighting trim than he showed this spring, he's not as fast as he needs to or can be. He's one of those rare players where depending on how some things play out this year, he could have a ho-hum average year or he could have a great year and position himself for the NFL.

Hannam has what Wulff wants in terms of toughness, drive and he takes instruction well. To reach his potential, he needs to get stronger and work on his feet -- he's not the most naturally gifted athlete out there but his intelligence and his work ethic have enabled him to pass by others with more athleticism.

Rowlands also needs to get stronger if he is to maximize his abilities. But he is tough, as seen in the '07 UCLA game when he kept dragging himself onto the field despite obvious pain, and he is experienced. Still, there remains plenty of room for improvement in strength gains and even in fundamentals.

Roxas has a world of upside. He's tough, competitive and he is athletic. He could well turn plenty of heads this year around the league -- if he picks up Etheridge's schemes quickly enough. Roxas, you'll remember, came in for Alfred against UCLA and not only started as a true freshman, he won the battle up front against the more experienced Bruin d-linemen.

Alfred is the lynchpin here. In line for consideration for the highest national and league honors, the junior-to-be has in good supply the attributes on Wulff's offensive linemen wish list -- tough, strong, athletic, fundamentally solid and detail oriented. There's still room for improvement with Alfred, and if he gets there this season, look out.

BEHIND THE STARTING UNIT, Eppele will take a run at one of the starting tackle spots. His biggest hurdle in a Cougar uniform has been staying healthy but he has phenomenal athleticism for his size and can flat out run.

Steven Ayers and Kevin Freitag were both highly regarded coming out of high school but both were bit hard by the injury bug last year. If they're ready to capitalize on their prospects it would help the Cougar cause immensely, because depth is thin up front.

B.J. Guerra, Reed Lesuma and walk-on Brian Danaher could all also figure into the mix depending on the gains they've realized this offseason.

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