Cougs' o-line: From thin to thinner

AS PRODUCTIVE AS Washington State's o-line played at times against USC, facts are facts. Injuries, compounding an already notable lack of crimson depth in the trenches, have put Paul Wulff in a nearly untenable situation. How untenable? So much so that on Sunday his list of OL starting candidates at Oregon this week included the names of a true freshman and a walk-on redshirt freshman.

That's worth repeating: A true freshman and a walk-on second-year freshman. Starting in a Pac-10 game. On the road at Autzen Stadium.

Two guys who are hardly removed from Friday Night Lights are now staring at the prospect of Saturday Afternoon in the Frying Pan.

That's no slam on Alex Reitnouer and Michael Pfeiff, two youngsters who are working hard to make the Cougs better. But it illustrates just how depleted WSU's roster truly is.

PFEIFF, FROM Marysville-Pilchuck High, is the walk on. He checks in at 6-6, 283. In the ideal world, he wouldn't see the light of day for at least another season, and that's if he's special. Reitnouer, the true frosh, is tenacious, but checks in at around 260 pounds and is nowhere near where he'll be in a year or two in the program -- he arrived at WSU just this past January weighing about 235.

Talk about a wake up call.

WSU HAD ALREADY lost starters Zack Williams (high ankle sprain) and B.J. Guerra (knee) headed into the game at USC, and then Steven Ayers got his ankle rolled up at the 14:10 mark of the final quarter against the Trojans. None of the three is expected to play Saturday in Eugene.

By the fourth quarter, Brian Danaher, Tyson Pencer and Joe Eppele joined regular starters Kenny Alfred and Micah Hannam in the starting line-up for the Cougs. The Trojans continued to blitz in the fourth quarter, but did not log any sacks against the revamped Cougar front.

That's good play by the big bodies. That's good coaching by WSU assistant Harold Etheridge. But it also cries out for realistic expectations headed into Oregon. Consider that, barring miraculous recovery, Washington State will be missing 60 percent of its starting offensive line against a team that bludgeoned Cal, then rated No. 6 in the nation, this past Saturday.

Even a squad that went into the season with great depth on the o-line would be hard pressed to withstand losing 60 percent of their starters up front and not feel a considerable crunch.

BY ALL MEANS, give credit to what the Cougar o-line was able to do at times Saturday against USC. As much hope as Jeff Tuel provided the Cougar Nation in his debut, save a tip of that hat for the offensive line.

After all, Ayers went down, and yet the Cougar o-line and Tuel proceeded to engineer their most impressive drives of the game -- with long 83- and 71-yard marches. That's not insignificant.

AND YET IT'S also a long ways from Marysville-Pilchuck to, as a walk-on no less, potentially starting in the Pac-10.

Wulff last night mentioned Eppele, along with senior Reed Lesuma, Reitnouer and Pfeiff, as the starting candidates if Ayers can't go. Ayers, who Wulff termed "highly questionable" went down in a heap when a USC player rolled into him from behind.

Pfeiff, said Wulff, has done some good things in practice. And that's good news. But ideally, you would like to see him physically mature, battle the next couple years and develop his craft under Etheridge. And then, if he's one of those special walk-ons WSU has produced over the years, maybe he earns a scholarship and playing time as an upperclassman.

Instead, in the here and now, due to a run on injuries on an '09 unit that wasn't deep to begin with or close to what Wulff is building to for the future, Pfeiff could earn a start as a redshirt freshman. And that's an eye opener.

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