Five big questions at start of fall camp

PAUL WULFF OPENS his first fall camp at Washington State on Tuesday and five questions he needs to answer between now and the season opener against Oklahoma State -- just 25 days out -- will go far in determining whether his Cougars' squad is a Pac-10 cellar dweller, as forecast, or a potential bowl contender.

How adept will Washington State be at creating depth?
Depth is typically an issue for the Cougs and most teams, but the '08 crimson offensive and defensive lines are particularly worrisome.

The Cougars return four o-line starters but after that things tail off quickly. Plus, the starting unit didn't meet line coach Harold Etheridge's expectations this spring. On the d-line, there's two new starters at four of the positions and the guys behind them have little experience.

A central point here -- Wulff while at Eastern was known for getting his backups into the game and getting them experience, and not during mop-up time. Expect him to do the same at Washington State.

That's also why you'll see Washington State start the first two days of camp with a split squad approach -- it's twice as much work for the coaches but they'll be able to get the younger players the same amount of practice reps there that they would if they were starters.

WSU will also be looking to create depth at receiver. On paper, there's a lot of WR bodies but in terms of experience, you won't find a ton of college catches outside of Brandon Gibson. Indeed, the Cougars want to identify seven reliable guys at receiver for their offense -- eight if possible.

Compounding the issue, Jeshua Anderson hasn't been around football since November, instead setting records in the 400 meter hurdles. Daniel Blackledge is a rising star but was nicked up over the summer and missed some time. The Cougs need to further indoctrinate both into the system, and identify and develop talent behind them.

At linebacker, there are proven veterans like Greg Trent, Cory Evans and Ken Dunn (and one could also put Jason Stripling in the group), but 'backers behind those four are unproven.

RB Dwight Tardy appears to be 100 percent. The Cougs need him and Chris Ivory to build on what they accomplished last year. It would be a welcome bonus if a slippery, fast, change of pace type from the incoming rookie class were to emerge. The Cougs look in good hands at tight end and under center, with two seemingly capable QBs in starter Gary Rogers and No. 2 man Kevin Lopina.

Can Washington State solidify their special teams and find success there?
The Cougs' special teams haven't truly been special since 2003 -- returns, coverage, you name it.

While Steve Broussard is special teams coordinator, Wulff has involved every assistant and has them taking an active role, although Malik Roberson and Etheridge, the two line coaches, may be slightly less hands-on.

New faces will be in the return game and at kicker and the depth chart shows Tyrone Justin and Daniel Blackledge on punt returns, Chris Ivory and Brandon Gibson on kickoffs. But the staff may take long looks at a few others. In the coverage schemes, the Cougs must develop some productive gunners -- they sorely need to find someone to do what Jason Hill did in that role in 2003.

To what degree will the players buy in to the Wulff mindset?
Wulff and crew will, on a daily basis during camp, address handling adversity.

Pretty much every team in the country faces a point each game where they have to handle adversity, whether a turnover, bad call or a bad beat for a long TD. The Cougs, Wulff has determined, need to learn to better handle those situations and overcome them. Expect Wulff and crew to drill on it every day of camp.

What about that crimson bugaboo of the last few seasons, the secondary? Provided everyone stays healthy, the Cougs might be better than advertised here. Getting back Devin Giles was a big plus, while Xavier Hicks and Chima Nwachukwu have big play potential at safety. Myron Beck and Easton Johnson both stood out at safety this spring, though Beck is looking almost big enough to be mistaken for a linebacker on the field.

Washington State in a perfect world-- and this might be where the Cougs point towards in the future some point after this season -- would like to in effect put four big corners in the back end, guys who can flat out run, play the run and are adept at man-to-man and cover-zero. They'd also like to employ more nickel. But the Cougs don't look to have the type of athletic personnel developed, at this point, to make such major shifts.

The question this fall camp will be how well Alfonso Jackson adapts to moving over from safety, and if there is also a player or two from the last two recruiting classes who is ready to suddenly emerge and challenge for significant turns -- it's a large group that consists of Tyrone Justin and Romeo Pellum from the '07 class, and rookies Kevin Frank, Daniel Simmons and Terrance Hayward, (and Tyree Toomer is a S/CB).

How big of an impact will the three JC transfers have on the defensive line?
If Washington State is to be successful defensively, they need to do a much more consistent job up front than last year. A decided lack of pressure is what stands out most from '07, but shutting down the run and plugging the middle of the line are also big needs.

DE Andy Mattingly is a playmaker but is also making a position switch from linebacker. Matt Mullennix looks finally healthy and the Cougs need him to excel. At d-tackle, Fevaea'i Ahmu has been dinged up much of his career leading to inconsistency, the Cougs need the senior to reach his potential in this, his senior year.

At the other d-tackle spot, the Cougs need improved play from Matt Eichelberger but the key to how good the Wazzu stop corps will be in '08 might turn on how quickly the three junior college transfers assimilate the scheme and adjust to Pac-10 play.

Indeed, Washington State will be looking for contributions from Bernard Wolfgramm, Jesse Sanchez and/or Josh Luapo, and for them to hit the ground running. And WSU would be well served if others like Toby Turpin also step up.

Oregon State was so successful on defense last year, (No. 1 in the nation against the run), because they rotated as many as 10 d-linemen -- yes, 10 -- a game. WSU won't have 10, few teams will, but if d-coordinators Chris Ball and Jody Sears can find a few more reliable guys they have confidence in up front, it will go a long ways.

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