Cougs much improved? Nwachukwu is convincing

WE'RE LESS THAN a week away until the Cougars hold their first fall practice, and I hate to say it, but if I'm being completely honest, I can't remember the last time I was having this much trouble getting fired up for a Washington State football season. WSU should be better, that I know. They can't be worse, I know that too.

Vegasinsider.com puts the over-under on number of Coug wins this year at 3. Where would you put your money? On a 2-10 or a 4-8 season?

I think it's reached a point where most would be thrilled with four wins this year, but I'm hard-pressed to figure out which four teams the Cougs will beat. Hawaii at Qwest Field? Perhaps. Southern Methodist in Pullman? Certainly. But who else? Maybe the Dawgs, since Washington State has owned them four of the last five years?

I don't know, it's going to take me awhile to start believing after that debacle of a 2008 season – I'm just looking for signs of the Cougs being competitive again. And by competitive, I mean being in the game in the third quarter and losing by 10 or 20 or 30 instead of 40 or 50 or 60.

I can't stand feeling this way about Cougar football, but the reality of what we saw still stings and doesn't exactly make me optimistic for the future. I'm looking for anything that will help change my mind -- because I'd like to be the president, not the skeptic, of the Paul Wulff Fan Club.

GO 2 GUY JIM MOORE

FORTUNATELY, I'VE HAD the opportunity to talk to several players over the past couple of weeks, and each one has spoken about the team buying in and becoming unified in never letting last year happen again.

I heard it from punter Reid Forrest, and then tight end Tony Thompson, and now from free safety Chima Nwachukwu.

I was driving along I-5, enduring another Seattle traffic jam when Nwachukwu called to cheer me up.

Nwachukwu is a well-spoken kid who sounds convincing when he talks about the Cougs being much improved. He points to offseason workouts in which the players were more physical than they have been in the past. He said the defense should be more effective because the players know the schemes and are working hard to be a cohesive unit.

He stressed the importance of the team's core covenants – family, intensity, attitude and trust.

"These are values we subscribe to as a team," Nwachukwu said. "It gives you a sense of something you belong to."

WHEN HE ARRIVED from Allen, Texas, Nwachukwu did not envision playing for a team that has gone 7-18 in his two seasons. Last year in particular was tough.

"I can't say I enjoyed it, but I learned about myself, my teammates, the coaches, the program in general," he said. "And we have very, very loyal fans. Even when we were losing, fans were going to our games.

"I learned about loyalty, and I learned that I had character flaws myself."

Asked to specify his flaws, Nwachukwu said: "It's good to see who you are when times are down. I had placed a real emphasis on football. I wasn't thinking about school. Not that I was getting bad grades, but when we started losing, I realized football may not always be there. I looked at the big picture and put more effort into academics."

AFTER HIS FRESHMAN season, Nwachukwu moved from cornerback to free safety. He's comfortable there and comfortable in Pullman after wondering about it initially. He wanted to go to a secluded school but got homesick and had questions about the state's geography, thinking: "Wow, is this all Washington has to offer?"

Now he said he loves the state and Pullman especially. "You're not just a number here," he said. "You know everybody, and everybody knows you."

THOSE WHO TRULY know him can spell and pronounce his name. So many others don't. Asked which happens most, his name being misspelled or mispronounced, Nwachukwu said: "Probably mispronounced. At away games, they always mispronounce it. It's actually easy to pronounce."

CHEE-muh WATCH-uh-koo. But he's heard CHY-ma NU-wok-a-koo-koo.

He's laughing now. His parents are from Nigeria, and his name means "God knows what's in my heart."

In Nwachukwu, Coug fans are apt to find the heart of a winner.

A 1978 WSU alum, Jim Moore also writes for seattlepi.com -- and can be heard today at 3 p.m. on "The Kevin Calabro Show" on 710 ESPN Seattle. His next Cougfan.com story will be about running back Dwight Tardy.


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