COUGAR OUTLOOK 2003: Reloading, not rebuilding

WITH A SECOND straight 10-win season and national top 10 finish as a spring board, ten all-Pac-10 performers returning, and a schedule that shapes up nicely, the 2003 Cougars look loaded for bear. Here's our early take on who's who.

OFFENSE

Notable losses: QB Jason Gesser, WR Jerome Riley, WR Mike Bush, WR Collin Henderson, OG Derrick Roche, C Tyler Hunt, T Phil Locker, RB John Tippins

Top returnees: QB Matt Kegel, RB Jermaine Green, RB/WR Jonathan Smith, WR Devard Darling, WR Scott Lunde, WR Sammy Moore, TE Troy Bienemann, T Calvin Armstrong, G Billy Knotts, T Josh Parrish, T Sam Lightbody, T Riley Fitt-Chappell

Up-and-Comers: OL Nick Mihlhaeuser, G Norvell Holmes, C/G Keola Loo, OL Patrick Afif, WR Marty Martin, WR Jevon Miller, WR Trandon Harvey, RB Allen Thompson, RB Chris Bruhn, QB Chris Hurd, QB Josh Swogger, TE Jesse Taylor

Look for:
The big story on offense will be how well fifth-year senior Matt Kegel performs on center stage. He's been in Jason's Gesser's shadow the last four years and didn't exactly inspire confidence when he was thrust into the Apple Cup in the fourth quarter. But he's not your standard rookie starter. Gesser's injury woes, coupled with Mike Price's goal to get Kegel at least one series in most games over the last two seasons, have afforded the Havre, Mont., native some decent PT. So he comes to the helm having completed 87 of 174 career pass attempts for 1,035 yards, three TDs and three INTs.

Kegel is big (6-5, 239), agile and has a stronger arm than Gesser. The rap on him has been his grasp of the offense, but the coaching stuff says that's yesterday's news. If he stumbles, though, youngsters Chris Hurd and Josh Swogger definitely are worth a look.

One thing is for certain: Whomever is quarterbacking the Cougars will get a big-time boost from the offensive line. While the OL loses two stellar performers in Roche and Tyler, plus the veteran Locker, the 2003 hosses could be better than the 2002 group -- in part because all the injuries in '02 forced so many younger guys into action. Consequently, the Cougars will come into spring practices with four bon-a-fide first-string tackles in Parrish, Armstrong, Lightbody and Fitt-Chappell. One of them may move to guard, where Knotts will batten down one side. Milhlhaueser, who saw considerable action at guard in '02 as a true freshman, could play there again in '03 or may battle junior Mike Shelford and JC transfer Keola Loo for the right to replace Hunt as the starting center.

Running back appears sold, both in terms of talent and depth. Green will be the toast of the Pac-10 if he stays healthy and Smith offers a darting, dashing alternative who also will be invaluable catching balls out of the backfield or lining up as a true receiver. Thompson, if he can stay healthy, will be an intriguing addition, as will JC transfer Chris Bruhn if his academics are in order.

At receiver, Darling had a sensational rookie season in Pullman in '02 and will be the go-to-guy in '03 now that Bush and Riley are gone. There's not a ton of experienced depth at wideout, but standout possession receiver Lunde is back. So is Sammy "Big Play" Moore. And look for a comeback by talented Trandon Harvey, who saw lots of action in '01 but missed all of '02 with injury. Youngsters Marty Martin, Jevon Miller and Thomas Ostrander figure to see significant playing time as well.

There's a mountain of talent at tight end, but sophomore-to-be Troy Bienemann seems to have a lock on the starting spot with the way he came on in the second half of '02 Junior Mark Alhburg, sophomore Adam West and freshman Jesse Taylor will all push for playing time.

Keys to the season:
Getting steady production at running back is imperative so Kegel can get his sea legs early and then avoid some of the heat he'll see in Pac-10 play. The second key to offensive success will be the health and maturity of the line. There's a load of prime beef returning, but the loss of leadership in Roche and Hunt could hurt.

THE DEFENSE

Notable losses: DT Rien Long, B Marcus Trufant, MLB Mawuli Davis, DE Fred Shavies, DT Tomasi, Kongaika and possibly S Virgil Williams if a medical redshirt isn't granted.

Top returnees:  DE D.D. Acholonu, DE Issac Brown, DT Jeremey Williams, DT Tai Tupai, CB Jason David, CB Karl Paymah, FS Erik Coleman, SS Vigil Williams (possibly), LB Al Genatone, LB Pat Bennett, LB Aaron Wagner, LB Will Derting, LB Kevin Sperry, LB Don Jackson, LB Ira Davis

Up-and-Comers: DE Adam Braidwood, DT Steve Cook, DB Hamza Abdullah, DB Jeremey Bohannon, DB Aaron Joseph, DB Alex Teems, LB Aaron Wagner

Look for:
This veteran and aggressive D should hang tough against just about any offense it will face. The line, led by Williams, Tupai and sack-masters Acholonu and Brown, figures to be as stout as any in recent Cougar memory. The linebacking corps loses the scrappy Mawuli Davis in the middle, but returns a bunch of experience. In the secondary, the loss of Trufant will be felt, but perhaps not as much as it otherwise would be had Karl Paymah not gotten so much PT -- and responded so well --- late in '02 when Jason David was sidelined with a busted cheekbone. Free safety is in good hands with Erik Coleman, a senior-to-be who will contender for all-league honors along with David. If Virgil Williams isn't granted a medical redshirt, look for Joseph, Abdullah and Bohannon to grab the other safety spot.

Keys to the season:
Health is the key to success. If these guys can avoid the injury bug, they will absolutely dominate some games. Depth is generally solid, but the secondary could be a weak spot once you get past the first-team unit --- there's talent, to be sure, but it's largely untested.

THE SPECIAL TEAMS

Notable losses: Kickoff man Adam Holiday, head-hunter Curtis Nettles, punt returner Marcus Trufant, holder Collin Henderson, FG/PAT snapper Tyler Hunt, special teams coach Kasey Dunn and kicking coach Aaron Price

Top returnees: Placekicker Drew Dunning, punter Kyle Basler, long snapper Troy Bienemann, kickoff return men Sammy Moore and Jonathan Smith, head hunters Cole Sheridan and Doc Farley

Up-and-Comers: Kickoff man Graham Siderius

Look for: Special teams play was a big reason for the Cougars' success in 2002, and many of the marquee guys are back for '03. Chief among them are Dunning and Basler. Though not quite on par with his stellar 2001 effort, Dunning had another record-breaking year in 2002 and Basler, only a sophomor-to-be, has people thinking he could be the finest punter in school history by the time he leaves. Strong-legged sophomore Graham Siderious will replace Holiday as the Cougars' kickoff specialist. He saw action in two games last season and graded out very nicely. With a little work on consistency he could prove every bit the weapon Holiday was over the last two years. The return-man situation is solid as Moore and Smith will back for kickoffs. Trufant was excellent on punt returns, but it appears there's a bevy of capable replacements in the wings, including Erik Coleman.

THE SCHEDULE

The Cougars open a 12-game regular season in Jason Gesser, WR Jerome Riley, WR Mike Bush, WR Collin Henderson, OG Derrick Roche, C Tyler Hunt, T Phil Locker, RB John Tippins

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Top returnees: QB Matt Kegel, RB Jermaine Green, RB/WR Jonathan Smith, WR Devard Darling, WR Scott Lunde, WR Sammy Moore, TE Troy Bienemann, T Calvin Armstrong, G Billy Knotts, T Josh Parrish, T Sam Lightbody, T Riley Fitt-Chappell

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Up-and-Comers: OL Nick Mihlhaeuser, G Norvell Holmes, C/G Keola Loo, OL Patrick Afif, WR Marty Martin, WR Jevon Miller, WR Trandon Harvey, RB Allen Thompson, RB Chris Bruhn, QB Chris Hurd, QB Josh Swogger, TE Jesse Taylor

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Look for:
The big story on offense will be how well fifth-year senior Matt Kegel performs on center stage. He's been in Jason's Gesser's shadow the last four years and didn't exactly inspire confidence when he was thrust into the Apple Cup in the fourth quarter. But he's not your standard rookie starter. Gesser's injury woes, coupled with Mike Price's goal to get Kegel at least one series in most games over the last two seasons, have afforded the Havre, Mont., native some decent PT. So he comes to the helm having completed 87 of 174 career pass attempts for 1,035 yards, three TDs and three INTs.

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Kegel is big (6-5, 239), agile and has a stronger arm than Gesser. The rap on him has been his grasp of the offense, but the coaching stuff says that's yesterday's news. If he stumbles, though, youngsters Chris Hurd and Josh Swogger definitely are worth a look.

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One thing is for certain: Whomever is quarterbacking the Cougars will get a big-time boost from the offensive line. While the OL loses two stellar performers in Roche and Tyler, plus the veteran Locker, the 2003 hosses could be better than the 2002 group -- in part because all the injuries in '02 forced so many younger guys into action. Consequently, the Cougars will come into spring practices with four bon-a-fide first-string tackles in Parrish, Armstrong, Lightbody and Fitt-Chappell. One of them may move to guard, where Knotts will batten down one side. Milhlhaueser, who saw considerable action at guard in '02 as a true freshman, could play there again in '03 or may battle junior Mike Shelford and JC transfer Keola Loo for the right to replace Hunt as the starting center.

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Running back appears sold, both in terms of talent and depth. Green will be the toast of the Pac-10 if he stays healthy and Smith offers a darting, dashing alternative who also will be invaluable catching balls out of the backfield or lining up as a true receiver. Thompson, if he can stay healthy, will be an intriguing addition, as will JC transfer Chris Bruhn if his academics are in order.

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At receiver, Darling had a sensational rookie season in Pullman in '02 and will be the go-to-guy in '03 now that Bush and Riley are gone. There's not a ton of experienced depth at wideout, but standout possession receiver Lunde is back. So is Sammy \"Big Play\" Moore. And look for a comeback by talented Trandon Harvey, who saw lots of action in '01 but missed all of '02 with injury. Youngsters Marty Martin, Jevon Miller and Thomas Ostrander figure to see significant playing time as well.

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There's a mountain of talent at tight end, but sophomore-to-be Troy Bienemann seems to have a lock on the starting spot with the way he came on in the second half of '02 Junior Mark Alhburg, sophomore Adam West and freshman Jesse Taylor will all push for playing time.

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Keys to the season:
Getting steady production at running back is imperative so Kegel can get his sea legs early and then avoid some of the heat he'll see in Pac-10 play. The second key to offensive success will be the health and maturity of the line. There's a load of prime beef returning, but the loss of leadership in Roche and Hunt could hurt.

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THE DEFENSE

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Notable losses: DT Rien Long, B Marcus Trufant, MLB Mawuli Davis, DE Fred Shavies, DT Tomasi, Kongaika and possibly S Virgil Williams if a medical redshirt isn't granted.

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Top returnees:  DE D.D. Acholonu, DE Issac Brown, DT Jeremey Williams, DT Tai Tupai, CB Jason David, CB Karl Paymah, FS Erik Coleman, SS Vigil Williams (possibly), LB Al Genatone, LB Pat Bennett, LB Aaron Wagner, LB Will Derting, LB Kevin Sperry, LB Don Jackson, LB Ira Davis

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Up-and-Comers: DE Adam Braidwood, DT Steve Cook, DB Hamza Abdullah, DB Jeremey Bohannon, DB Aaron Joseph, DB Alex Teems, LB Aaron Wagner

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Look for:
This veteran and aggressive D should hang tough against just about any offense it will face. The line, led by Williams, Tupai and sack-masters Acholonu and Brown, figures to be as stout as any in recent Cougar memory. The linebacking corps loses the scrappy Mawuli Davis in the middle, but returns a bunch of experience. In the secondary, the loss of Trufant will be felt, but perhaps not as much as it otherwise would be had Karl Paymah not gotten so much PT -- and responded so well --- late in '02 when Jason David was sidelined with a busted cheekbone. Free safety is in good hands with Erik Coleman, a senior-to-be who will contender for all-league honors along with David. If Virgil Williams isn't granted a medical redshirt, look for Joseph, Abdullah and Bohannon to grab the other safety spot.

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Keys to the season:
Health is the key to success. If these guys can avoid the injury bug, they will absolutely dominate some games. Depth is generally solid, but the secondary could be a weak spot once you get past the first-team unit --- there's talent, to be sure, but it's largely untested.

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THE SPECIAL TEAMS

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Notable losses: Kickoff man Adam Holiday, head-hunter Curtis Nettles, punt returner Marcus Trufant, holder Collin Henderson, FG/PAT snapper Tyler Hunt, special teams coach Kasey Dunn and kicking coach Aaron Price

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Top returnees: Placekicker Drew Dunning, punter Kyle Basler, long snapper Troy Bienemann, kickoff return men Sammy Moore and Jonathan Smith, head hunters Cole Sheridan and Doc Farley

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Up-and-Comers: Kickoff man Graham Siderius

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Look for: Special teams play was a big reason for the Cougars' success in 2002, and many of the marquee guys are back for '03. Chief among them are Dunning and Basler. Though not quite on par with his stellar 2001 effort, Dunning had another record-breaking year in 2002 and Basler, only a sophomor-to-be, has people thinking he could be the finest punter in school history by the time he leaves. Strong-legged sophomore Graham Siderious will replace Holiday as the Cougars' kickoff specialist. He saw action in two games last season and graded out very nicely. With a little work on consistency he could prove every bit the weapon Holiday was over the last two years. The return-man situation is solid as Moore and Smith will back for kickoffs. Trufant was excellent on punt returns, but it appears there's a bevy of capable replacements in the wings, including Erik Coleman.

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THE SCHEDULE

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The Cougars open a 12-game regular season in