DEPTH CHART: R-Sr. Kevin Lopina (6-3, 234); R-So. Marshall Lobbestael 6-3, 206); So. J.T. Levenseller (6-1. 187); R-So. Dan Wagner (6-0, 217); Fr. Jeff Tuel (6-3, 207); So. David Gilbertson (6-2, 200)
PLAYERS LOST: Gary Rogers (Two starts, four games played)
INJURIES: Marshall Lobbestael was held out of some drills and all scrimmaging as he recovered from knee surgery. Recently, he's been cutting while running, and added more agility drills to his offseason passing and drop-back work. He is expected to be 100 percent by the opener at home against Stanford Sep. 5.
OVERVIEW: The Kevin Lopina/Marshall Lobbestael debate has been front and center this offseason and it'll continue that way until one is named the starter.
Lobbestael as a redshirt freshman played in five games last season, completing 51.5 percent of his passes for 571 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions. He started three games before his season ended with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, medical collateral ligament and meniscus.The kickoff of fall camp Aug. 9 will make it a little under 10 months since he went under the knife.
Lopina had his own injury woes in '08, with a cracked vertebrae that forced him out, and Lobbestael in, during the season. Lopina started seven games in 2008, completing 56.9 percent of his 153 passes for 841 yards, no TDs and 11 interceptions.
With Lobbestael unable to go full go in spring ball, Lopina comes into fall camp as the starter but it's a straight-up even competition between the two.
LOBBESTAEL WOULD APPEAR the odds-on favorite based solely on in-game performance last season. But if Lobbestael doesn't perform in fall camp, or if he gets dinged up, Lopina is well capable of being named the starter. The coaches will also be cautious with Lobbestael -- they don't want him, or anyone else, to aggravate something that should be rested and end up placing themselves out an additional 4-6 weeks.
And the coaches certainly don't want a repeat of last year, when the Cougs suffered through an unprecedented run on injuries.
Regardless of who starts, as last year proved, the Cougs need a solid QB option at the ready -- an experienced safety cushion if the starter goes down means the offense can continue in the same, or at least a similar, vein. If not, you have a situation like '08. The Cougs were not capable of running Paul Wulff and Todd Sturdy's offense and so they played a limited, basic brand of offensive football.
One of the golden rules in coaching is you never ask players to do something they're not capable of -- and while it was painful as heck for Cougar Nation last year to watch an offense with a governor attached to it, that could now pay dividends this year. Indeed, if the Cougs in Year 2 aren't up to speed, ready to roll and prepared in Wazzu's high-tempo, no-huddle attack -- inclusive of customary assorted injuries and substitute starts -- it will be a disappointment.
Lopina brings to the table above average speed at the position. He didn't use it much late in the year because he was playing hurt and the Cougs couldn't afford him to go down again, but he has some wheels. In talking intangibles, one of Lobbestael's strengths -- his leadership skills. Players gravitate to him, he's a fiery competitor and players feed off of his energy. And that helps both the offense and defense through difficult situations.
WULFF HAS ALSO included J.T. Levenseller in the starting mix candidates heading into fall camp. Pre-camp, it seems likley Levenseller would need a real breakout performance this August to make it a true three-way battle. But he might be capable.
Last year, Levenseller, like any true freshman, was simply trying to absorb it all. And what sometimes is forgotten is that those all-important practice reps for a No. 3 quarterback, or a No. 2 for that matter, are few.
Timing is of such critical importance to offensive success, the No. 1 quarterback, at every school, is who gets the reps.
A lack of practice reps, along with being an underclassman trying to learn a complex college offense while adapting to the defensive speed at the collegiate level, is among the biggest impediments to success when thrust into a starter's role.
Yet every successful college quarterback has that moment when things click, however, and while for most it's somewhere around Years 3-4, it does on occasion have its genesis between the first and second year.
Levenseller, a true sophomore this season, has a very strong arm, and he can move well. For him, it's mostly a matter of mastering the thinking side of the position. It's more reasonable to expect that to happen next year around this time. But if he's ahead of schedule, if that happens at the outset of the '09 fall camp, things could get interesting.
Levenseller has a solid foundation. The son of WSU receivers coach Mike Levenseller, he's been around the game and talking football/watching tape with his dad his whole life. He just needs to keep building.
At this point walk-on Dan Wagner isn't in the starting picture. He is athletic and has some quicks, and he is also the backup punter.
And going back to an earlier theme, a hard-working quarterback or two has been known a leap upwards right around Year 3. Wagner will be a redshirt sophomore this year.
NEW BLOOD arrives this fall in the form of Jeff Tuel, and also walk-on David Gilbertson, the son of longtime college and pro coach Keith Gilbertson.
Tuel is "pretty darned good," Sturdy told CF.C this spring. But Wulff and Sturdy's firm plan is to redshirt him. In order to build depth at the position, it's a no-brainer.
As good as many in Cougar Nation think Tuel will be, it's difficult to imagine he would, right now, be as ready as are the two upperclassmen who have been in the WSU system. A redshirt makes even more sense when considering that Lobbestael and Lopina look to be on the verge of playing their best football to date at Washington State.
AN OPTIMIST WOULD SAY: Both Lobbestael and Lopina are ready to shine after some trials last year. The supporting cast at each and every position around them is bigger, stronger and plain old better than last year. The Cougs' deepest position is running back, the stable should make an impact in '09 -- and help keep teams off balance and from blitzing the kitchen sink and teeing off on WSU quarterbacks, as happened far too often last year. And if they do bring it, then the Cougar QB's will be in a position this year, unlike in '08, to make them pay.
A PESSIMIST WOULD SAY: The quarterbacks might be better but it's far from known if they'll be all that good. The receivers had a ton of drops in the spring, the offensive line will be improved but will they be one of the better units in the Pac-10 or just average to below average? A pessimist would also say the Cougs have to prove their offense, a high tempo, no-huddle brand with multiple shifts and sets that was shuttered last year, can catch Pac-10 defenses unawares.
STAR PLAYER: Marshall Lobbestael, Kevin Lopina or both. Both have experience, have each led the team to victories, have each started and each have come off the bench. Lobbestael, a sophomore, has a high ceiling, while Lopina, a senior, should show his cagey playmaker side more.
UNIT STRENGTH: Poise. Lobbestael and Lopina, along with the entire Washington State program, soldiered through a trying season indeed last year. The thrilling Apple Cup victory notwithstanding, the Cougs got kicked around in a number of games in '08. The Cougars are more mentally tough for having gone through that, and they're driven and ticked off by it. And on offense, that starts with the quarterback. The QB's still have a long ways to go before they're ready to lead the program to once again making some real noise in the Pac-10. But, as Wulff said this past week, they're bigger and faster, and some of the pieces are beginning to gel, and if they stay healthy, they could surprise some people this year.
UNIT WEAKNESS: Stretching the field. With the deep ball all but nonexistent last year, each quarterback has struggled with that part of their game, as has the o-line in providing enough protection. The Cougs must show a viable deep threat, or they'll face safeties crowding the box and defenses sending more people than the line can block.
WULFF: "Expectations are they all will be improved and truly should be able to now lead us down the field and put us in a position to score points and more importantly, take care of the football. Securing the football is their number one goal. All those guys should improve in that area and should be an excellent competition between the three veteran players."