Former Washington State men's basketball coach Dick Bennett once said that a hoops coach should not be evaluated until after their fourth year in a program. By that time, Bennett reasoned, a coach finally has some upperclassmen he recruited to his system.
"I think in basketball four years is realistic, in football it all depends on the shape of the program. When it's a complete rebuild job, four or five years is realistic to get back to being a very competitive program where you feel like you can cycle yourself year in and year out.." said Wulff. "In our situation, we've made as fast of progress as we possibly can."
Wulff was not necessarily referring to the Cougars' 1-11 record this season, which included an 0-9 mark in Pac-10 play. It was the first time in program history they have lost double-digit games in consecutive seasons, and their first winless season in conference play since '98.
HE WAS INSTEAD REFERRING to recruiting. Among the high-school signings from the 2008 class -- not including injured defensive end Cory Mackay, whose career remains in doubt after a serious car accident last spring -- only three, wide receiver Jared Karstetter and linebackers Louis Bland and Mike Ledgerwood, have not redshirted. Wulff had 18 scholarship freshmen enroll this year and only five played.
He said he redshirted some players in the past to build some experienced depth in the program. Even though there are not many juniors and seniors returning for the 2010 season, Wulff said WSU will have close to the maximum allotment of 85 scholarships for the upcoming season for the first time in three years. And there will be depth at nearly every position.
"I feel very good about spring football," he said, adding that the depth will have a significant impact on special teams. "We're going to have a competitive football team."
WULFF WAS NOT definitive when asked if all of his assistants would return next season.
"I'm satisfied (with the performance) but at the same time, we're still getting all our ducks in a row," he said. "I've got a lot of things to get accomplished in the next week or two before I would (potentially) make any official change or anything of that nature."
Wulff, as he did last week, said fans should expect to see a "big leap" next year and in each of the two following seasons as the program develops experience. He wasn't interested in making any predictions on how many wins that means in 2010, but Wulff said the players he has met with in the season ending one-on-one meetings are "pretty set on going to a bowl game."
He said the goal for next year remains the same -- go bowling, and win the bowl game. And that while the Cougs will be young, if they stay healthy Wulff believes they can compete for a bowl game.
TWO HOLDOVERS FROM the 2009 recruiting class are expected to buoy the defensive line. Wulff said things are on track for junior d-end Brandon Rankin and freshman d-tackle Quayshawne Buckley to enroll in January. Wulff said those two will count against this year's total and projects he will sign a full class of 25 players in February.
"I think they can give us an immediate impact," he said. "I think we have a formidable group developing there."
Rankin was a four-star recruit out of Butte College in California. An All-American, he was the 2008 California Junior College Defensive Player of the Year after recording 24 sacks. Wulff said co-defensive coordinator Jody Sears recruited and did a great job of landing Rankin.
"He's got excellent quickness and speed," Wulff said of Rankin. "He's got a knack for finding the quarterback.
"Our ability to get to the quarterback out of the pass rush will greatly improve," Wulff said. "Our defense should make the biggest jump (in '10)."
WULFF STARTED A defensive line without a starter who had taken a Pac-10 snap before 2009 in several games after end Kevin Kooyman (knee) was lost for the season after the Sept. 5 season opener against Stanford. Kooyman will return in 2010.
"We took a big hit in our line," he said. "When we played in the Stanford game, I thought we were physically comparable to them. We just weren't deep enough to maintain the growth we felt we made in the offseason."
THE COUGARS' TWO starting outside linebackers for most of the season, Andy Mattingly and Jason Stripling, graduate but Wulff likes the younger players' speed and athleticism returning at the position.
Middle linebacker Mike Ledgerwood had a team-high 14 tackles in the 30-0 Apple Cup loss and his presence might allow Alex Hoffman-Ellis to move outside. Wulff also was able to redshirt Andre Barrington and Darren Markle this season. Another freshman who redshirted, Arthur Burns also might play linebacker. And Sekope Kaufusi has drawn raves for his work on the scout team this year.
WSU's DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD has not been noted for its speed in recent years, but Wulff said that will change next year.
"I see guys that can run 4.5s and 4.4s," he said, referring to the 40-yard dash. "That's something we've clearly lacked."
WULFF ALSO LIKES the team's depth in the secondary. He noted Brandon Jones, Terrance Hayward, Daniel Simmons and a pair of freshmen who redshirted, Anthony Carpenter and Nolan Washington, at cornerback. Simmons started half of the season as a redshirt freshman before breaking his leg Oct. 10 against Arizona State and had become the team's best corner.
"I think Daniel Simmons will be one of the bright young corners in the Pac-10," Wulff said.
The situation is similar at safety. Xavier Hicks graduates, but Chima Nwachukwu will be back for his senior year. The Cougars also have players such as LeAndre Daniels and Jay Matthews and a pair of freshmen who redshirted this year, Jamal Atofau and Casey Locker, returning. Wulff said Tyree Toomer, who redshirted after tearing his pectoral muscle before the season, could play safety or linebacker and was greatly missed this year.
Sophomore Eric Block, a Bellevue High School graduate, will not return to the program because of complications with ulcerative colitis, a disease of the large intestine. Wulff said his scholarship will not count against the program's maximum total because he no longer can play.
"I absolutely love the kid," Wulff said. "But a normal life moving forward is far too important than trying to battle the symptoms that flare up due to football."
OFFENSIVELY, THE COUGARS started three different quarterbacks -- Marshall Lobbestael, Kevin Lopina and Jeff Tuel -- this season. The coaching staff settled on Tuel, who completed 71 of 121 passes for 789 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions as a true freshman, but he missed the final three games after suffering a subluxed right kneecap Nov. 7 at Arizona.
"I think we felt moving into the season that we would be a much improved football team," Wulff said. "We just didn't have enough development in our quarterback position."
The situation was similar at running back where James Montgomery, a highly touted transfer from California, was limited to less than three games after having emergency surgery to correct suffered acute compartment syndrome in his left leg. While it once looked for all the world like Monty's football career was over, Wulff said he expects Montgomery to be ready by June.
Wulff said the Cougs might not be as talented at WR as they were when former WSU greats Devard Darling, Brandon Gibson and Jason Hill -- all of whom are in the NFL -- were on the Palouse. He believes Karstetter and Gino Simone will continue to progress, but believes another player might produce even more.
"I think Kevin Norrell is (talented)," said Wulff, adding that he expects two of the projected four wide receivers he signs in February to immediately compete for playing time.
NORRELL REDSHIRTED THIS season after he was arrested in September in Pullman for driving under the influence and other infractions. While Norrell returns, Wulff announced that WSU will lose one more offensive lineman beyond graduating center Kenny Alfred and tackle Reed Lesuma. Joe Eppele, who had one year of eligibility remaining, is expected to enter the Canadian Football League draft.
Eppele is a British Columbia native. Kennedy High graduate Kevin Freitag's future remains in question because of a lingering toe injury. Freitag had surgery back in the summer.
The 6-foot-8 Eppele played some offensive tackle for the Cougars in addition to Steven Ayers. Wulff previously told CF.C that he views Ayers as an interior lineman in the future. Wulff said the recruiting plan this class includes potentially signing 1-2 junior-college offensive tackles.
WULFF CONTINUED TO express excitement about the upcoming recruiting class. CF.C has 17 listed known verbal commitments.
"I feel this class coming in could be as good as I remember for Cougar football," he said, a though. "They're going to bring bowl games to this university."
But for now, Wulff said it is important that players work hard in the offseason and cultivate relationships.
"They're collectively growing together and doing great things together as a team," he said. "Maybe a brother in terms of feeling, instead of a stranger. We've got to continue to grow together as people."
"Usually they're very positive; they're all believing," he said. "I think the people that dive into our situation are very understanding. Those are the people I respect."