Walden: '09 OL critical to offensive success

HOW MUCH IMPROVED might Washington State's offensive line be this season? Last year was one to forget, with a group up front that was in equal parts decimated by injury, young, thin on depth and inexperienced. As the offensive line goes, so goes the offense and for insight we sought out Jim Walden, radio color man and former head coach of the Cougars. His answers were surprising.

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Coming off a difficult 2008 campaign, Walden isn't predicting that the Cougar o-line will suddenly start dominating the trenches. But he isn't about to set the bar low either. Will the group up front show significant improvement?

"Absolutely they can-- I don't think 'expect' is the right word but I think the Cougar fans are going to appreciate the progress that is going to be made between the running backs and the offensive line. The running backs for all intents and purposes are all back and they now have a better understanding of what roles they're going to play. The offensive line for the most part, they're all back," said Walden.

Why does a year playing together on the o-line, even a year in which they were overmatched, matter so much? The defensive secondary is a close second but nowhere else on a football team, says Walden, is such a premium placed on a) unity and b) playing experience together, than it is on the offensive line.

"The offensive line is the most unique team within a team," said Walden. "Where that comes in is experience. And trust. "Part of building a good offensive line is selecting your five best guys, hope none of them get hurt and that they can work together every single day. At some point in time, they become so confident and trustworthy of one another...my call to you is he's shading me and you trust that call. And you block, within our blocking scheme, according to that."

WSU's DEPTH UP FRONT, while better than last year, is still markedly thin. Even assuming a banner offseason in strength gains, the Cougars are still expected to have less overall athleticism than they will down the road, after Wulff adds to the fold a couple more recruiting classes. How do they overcome that challenge?

"They just have to be a team -- You can put five guys up there and not have one single NFL prospect in the group and they can block.. your.. brains.. out," said Walden.

And he has first hand experience to back up the claim.

"It might have been 1983, we called our offensive line 'The Six Pack' -- we had six guys we thought could play. The unique thing about them was they all could play, and not one of them got nicked the entire season. It was like watching pros work -- those guys just had so much confidence and trust in one another. And (individually), they really weren't that good," said Walden.

The Cougs went 7-4 in 1983, barely losing to No. 6 Michigan and logging road victories against No. 13 ASU and No. 15 Washington.

IN 2008, WAZZU had a run on o-line injuries and turned to...an astoundingly empty cupboard. How thin? When starting right tackle Micah Hannam got dinged up in the fifth game of the season, a redshirt freshman walk-on, Will Hunter, came into the starting lineup. On other occasions, Paul Wulff and line coach Harold Etheridge sat some starters down.

With the youth getting as much experience as much as they did in '08, that will help this season, said Walden.

"What comes from that is great experience -- even if you're not with the same exact team you're going to be with next year. All those guys have now played a lot of minutes up there and all of them will be more intimately knowledgeable, and trustworthy, about each other's experience level. You've got all those freshmen and sophomores who did all that playing, they only lose one guy (Vaughn Lesuma)," said Walden.

WALDEN SAID the realization of what needs to be done in the weight room was also hammered home to the players this past fall on Saturday afternoons.

"I think they now understand what strength you have to have...Most of the problems with this group last year were just because they were so young, with the exception of a senior or two," said Walden.

In addition to those who gained experience last year, James Montgomery will be eligible in '09 after sitting out his transfer year and hoss Zack Williams spent this past season redshirting. Both are expected to make significant contributions.

"I think sometimes the greatest, greatest jump -- sometimes to a point that is startling -- can happen from your first year to the second... No. 1, they want to get better if they've got any pride at all...Sometimes it's startling to see how much progress can be made from year one to year two of a coaching change, when all the guys are returning," said Walden.

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