Sizing up the offense: Cougar outlook 2010

HOW SOBERING WAS the Washington State offense in 2009? So sobering that that there's virtually nowhere to go but up in 2010. The '09 Cougs ranked No. 119 out of 120 Division I-A schools in both total offense and scoring offense. The only team with a tougher time finding the end zone was New Mexico State (whose offensive coordinator, interestingly, was Timm Rosenbach). So what's 2010 look like?

The Cougar O scored an average of just 12 points a game – a production rate that makes the Chad Davis years seem downright Leafian.

In the second of a three-part series previewing the 2010 Cougar football team, CF.C today breaks down the offense ...

Much of the Cougars' woes can be traced to the offensive line. Injuries were so prevalent in the trenches that a 260-pound freshman, Alex Reitnour, was forced into the starting lineup at left tackle protecting the QB's blind side. Indeed, the Cougar hosses surrendered a breathtaking 53 sacks in 2009. That lack of protection ranked – you guessed it – 119th in the nation. By contrast, the Pac-10's best protecting teams – Stanford and Arizona – gave up six and 11 sacks, respectively.

Little wonder that fourth string QB Dan Wagner, a walk on from Portland, saw action in the first half of the Apple Cup.

So where does all this badinage leave the Cougs as they prep for 2010? Here's the complete offensive rundown ….

Notable losses: C Kenny Alfred, RB Dwight Tardy, QB Kevin Lopina, TE Tony Thompson, TE Zach Tatman, OL Joe Eppele

Top returnees: QB Jeff Tuel, QB Marshall Lobbestael, G/T Steven Ayers, LT Alex Reitnour, LG Zack Williams, RG B.J. Guerra, RT Micah Hannam, OL Brian Danaher, OT Tyson Pencer, WR Jared Karstetter, WR Gino Simone, WR Jeffrey Solomon, WR Daniel Blackledge, WR Johnny Forzani, RB Logwone Mitz, RB Carl Winston, RB James Montgomery, RB Marcus Richmond.

Up-and-comers: C Andrew Roxas, OL William Prescott, RB/RS Chance Staden, TE Skylar Stormo, TE Andrei Lintz, TE Aaron Gehring, OL Tim Hodgdon, OL Sebastian Valenzuela, WR Kevin Norrell

Look for:
Improvement in the offensive line is not only a must, but pretty much a given even though Alfred – a likely NFL draft pick – is gone. If the Cougars' first string can stay healthy, then the line play should be serviceable. Head coach Paul Wulff has said that guards Williams and Guerra have what it takes to knock heads at a very high level. In addition, RT Hannam will be back for his fifth season and third as a starter. That's three solid bodies to build around, along with center Andrew Roxas. Roxas, who saw action in 20 games at guard and one start at center from 2007-08, sat out 2009 after suffering from viral hepatitis. When he returned to the practice field, he worked the scout team and looked solid as he steadily put back the weight he lost. Barring injury, those four represent a pretty decent group of starters. Filling in around them figure to be three players with experience -- Ayers, Pencer and Danaher – and a couple of second-year freshmen in Tim Hodgdon and Sebastian Valenzuela. Wulff would like to move Ayers inside if Pencer continues along his current path and has a good spring and fall camp -- the coaches are high on his potential. In addition, there could be one or more JC transfers competing for time if WSU's recruiting goes as planned.

Keys to the season:
If the line can come together in even an average way, then all eyes will be focused on the quarterback, where on paper Tuel figures to be backed up by Lobbestael. Tuel gained valuable experience as a true freshman in 2009 but will need to ramp up his knowledge of the offense, recognition of defensive schemes, and the speed of his decision making. Before going down with injury for the season, he completed 71 of 121 passes (58.7 percent) for 789 yards, 6 TDs and 5 INTs. Tuel has good feet and good accuracy on short routes, plus the arm strength to air things out. If he can put it all together, he could be a guy who's talked about around the Palouse for a long while. Lobbestael, who never looked comfortable playing on his surgically repaired knee, completed 67 of 144 pasees (46.5 percent) for 655 yards, 3 TDs and 8 INTs in 2009. It won't be a surprise if Lobbestael takes a big leap forward this coming year. One of the bright spots for the 2010 offense will be the wealth of experienced talent at receiver, led by Pac-10 honorable mention pick Jared Karstetter and scrappy Gino Simone. What the Cougars don't have is a reliable deep threat to stretch defenses. Johnny Forzani, who has lightning speed, showed glimpses of that ability in 2009, but his route running and hands need work. WSU suspended in '09 for the year arguably their best receiving threat in Norrell. His return could create a ripple effect that will benefit the offense as a whole.

Bottom line:
If the Cougars can step up their offense to even mediocre, it'll pay huge dividends. And not just in points on the board. In what seems a lifetime ago, earlier this season before a catastrophic number of injuries hit, WSU put together some lengthy drives -- 14, 15 and 17-play type of stuff. By the end of the season, those were close to non-existent. An increase in time of possession in '10 would do wonders for a Cougar D that never really got much help from its offense in 2009. WSU opponents this season, on average, held the ball seven minutes more per game that the Cougars.

In case you missed it ...
Previewing the 2010 Cougar defense

The third and final installment in CF.C's preview of 2010 is coming tomorrow. It will break down the special teams and game schedule.

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