Recruits on the radar

HOW HIGH HAVE back-to-back 10-win seasons and two Rose Bowl berths within five years elevated the profile of WSU football? So high that the Cougars' newest recruiting class --- built largely in the mold of most Cougar classes of the last ten years --- has earned a place alongside perennial national powers Florida State, Nebraska and Penn State as the "biggest losers" in this year's recruiting wars.

That's according to The Sportings News' Matt Hayes. He notes that while the Seminoles were losing out on prime time prospects to LSU and Florida, Penn State to Cal and Tulane, and to (this is not a typo) South Florida, Ol' Wazzu's "top two prospects may not even make it," he says, adding, "Defensive lineman Tolifili Liufau likely is junior college bound, and dynamic running back Chris Bruhn failed to qualify in 2001 and 2002."

Some folks may read that as being negative. To me, it's a powerful statement of how far the WSU program has ascended when a nationally respected columnist for the bible of the true sports fan considers the Cougars worth considering. Not too long along ago, WSU wasn't on any national radar screens. Recruiting well or recruiting poorly, no one outside the state of Washington much cared what the Cougars were doing.

Now The Sporting News is analyzing Cougar recruiting classes the way they've done for years with the likes of Oklahoma, Texas and Ohio State.

Here's what else Hayes had to say about the Cougars' class fo 2003: "It's hard enough recruiting to Pullman. It's worse when the town's ambassador escaped to the cosmopolitan beauty of Tuscaloosa, Ala. Plus, half of new coach Bill Doba's staff hadn't been hired midway through January."

Alas, Matt, we're not too worried. Only two verbal commitments (Rudy Burgess and Dwayne Wright) were lost after Mike Price left for Bama and Bruhn looks to be a lock to wrap up his AA degree this spring. Best of all, the class may be devoid of rating service star power but it's heavy on speed and athleticism --- the same hallmarks of the classes that helped produce the Cougars' 10-win seasons in 1997, 2001 and 2002.

HERE'S ANOTHER LITTLE nugget that shows you how far WSU has scaled the national mountain. In a December column sizing up the 2003 Pac-10 race, Hayes opined that USC will be in for tough sledding without "18-year starter" Carson Palmer. He quickly added, "That's why Washington State will be back in the Rose Bowl next season. Matt Kegel, Jason Gesser's backup, slipped against the Huskies in the Apple Cup, but Mike Price says Kegel has as much talent as any quarterback he has coached and just needs reps."

How notable is that? After 1997, pundits dismissed the Cougars' Pac-10 title as a fluke. Now, with back-to-back 10-win seasons, including national championship talk this past year as late as mid-November, a Pac-10 title grants the Cougars the label of "favorite" going into the next campaign.

AND SPEAKING OF Sporting News columnists, I must admit that TSN's Tom Deinhart earned a permanent soft spot in my heart after the Cougars' Rose Bowl-clinching victory over UCLA. He wrote that he had voted for Palmer for the Heisman Trophy, but wished in retrospect that he had penned in Gesser instead.

"The more I thought about it, the more I know I voted for the wrong Pac-10 quarterback," he said. "Washington State's Jason Gesser should have been the quarterback clutching the Heisman on Saturday night in New York. It was Gesser's Cougars who won the Pac-10, not Palmer's Trojans. Gesser's Cougars even beat Palmer's Trojans. And as far as closing salvos go, none was more impressive than Gesser's effort vs. UCLA on December 7. He essentially played on one leg, wearing braces on a right knee and ankle he sprained two weeks earlier."

Deinhart, by the way, predicted this week that the 2003 Pac-10 race would be a four-team battle among USC, Arizona State, Washington and Oregon.

If the last eight seasons are any guide (the Pac-10 champion in each of those years was quarterbacked by a veteran fourth- or fifth-year player), then Oregon and UW should go to the front of the list because Jason Fife and Cody Pickett are the only returning starters and seniors-to-be who will start in 2003 (though Fife's starting status could be in question). Matt Kegel will be the only other senior starter in the conference. And while he isn't a returning starter, he does have more than 1,000 air yards to career credit so far. ASU's Andrew Walter, a highly talented returnee, will be a junior in '03, as will USC has Matt Cassel, who threw all of four passes last season.


Texas head coach Mack Brown, responding to the fact he again landed what pundits believe to be among the finest recruiting classes in the nation, poured water all over that notion last week. He likes his class, to be sure, but in terms of its national prominence he said it's just a matter of geography. Basically, he said, because the media attention paid to high school ballplayers in Texas is more intense than anywhere in the nation, Texas prepsters get more publicity --- and therefore more currency with national analysts --- than players anywhere else in the country.

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