WRs: Can the Cougs go deep this spring?

THE WIDE RECEIVERS this spring out on the Palouse will be experienced yet still young – there are no seniors among the projected starters pre-spring. But there's one thing the Cougars perhaps need to find most during the 15-practice spring session from their receiving corps, and it's not seniority.

It's a reliable deep threat.

For the Cougs, in brief, the "X" receiver usually lines up farthest out while "Z" is the other outside guy. Both are deep threats and utilize taller receivers to stretch the field. The "F" receiver at WSU, also known in other offensive systems as the slot receiver, customarily yields the quick players, ones who run precision, intermediate routes and who are, laterally, very athletic.

Jared Karstetter, Pac-10 honorable mention this past season, was the Cougs' most viable deep threat last season and led WSU in catches, yards and TD grabs. Lining up mostly at the Z, he used his height (6-4) extremely well.

Karstetter (38 catches, 540 yards, 6 TDs) has deceptive speed because of his long stride -- it doesn't look like he's moving fast as he is but if you watch closely, the Spokane native quickly covers a lot of ground. He also has great hands.

But arguably what stands out most about Karstetter is that he has good spatial awareness, with the smarts and ability to make defensive backs bend the way he wants them to -- so he can manipulate the space between his route and the defensive back. And that's where Johnny Forzani needs to improve, starting with this spring.

FORZANI HAS blinding speed, he's the fastest of all Cougar receivers and could potentially give Pac-10 DB coaches ulcers. He showed a few glimpses of it in 2009.

But his route running and hands need work. The Cougs brought in Forzani last year (9 catches, 265 yards, 29.4 ypc, 2 TDs) to be the guy who runs the hero route, to catch the home run ball. Put him as a single receiver on one side, go deep and gain separation, and then listen for the band striking up the fight song. That didn't happen nearly enough for WSU in '09.

Without that type of deep threat last year, (and in no small part because of an o-line that couldn't offer adequate protection), Cougar opponents didn't have to defend as much of the field. That needs to change if WSU is going to be successful this season, and starting this spring.

Mike Levenseller is oft-mentioned as one of the best technical receiving coaches in college football. If he can raise the still raw Forzani's production up to his potential this season, Levy will add to that résumé.

THE COUGS SHOULD have a strong slot receiving game in the spring. Gino Simone is deceptively quick and like Karstetter, has that spatial awareness chip in his DNA. Levenseller is the perfect coach for a guy like Simone, who only figures to improve his ball skills under Levy's tutelage.

Simone aggressively attacks defenders, and he turned heads of coaches and observers alike during his first fall camp with his ability to catch anything near him. The one thing he'll need to do before he can reach his potential is to get bigger and stronger. Both he and Karstetter have exceptional drive, and it won't be a surprise if the heightened offseason work they're putting in now pays big dividends this season.

ON THE FINAL depth chart of the season last year, Jeffrey Solomon was listed as the starting "X" receiver, with Daniel Blackledge his backup. The biggest battle they've had to fight during the Cougar careers has been to stay healthy.

Both have better than average speed for a Pac-10 receiver, but not elite level breakaway type. Both also have good hands – Solomon last year in practice, when healthy, had days where he caught everything close to him, and a few more that weren't.

For Blackledge and Solomon, some of what they need to do to reach the next level in their development level lies in strength and gameface attitude. Both need to be more aggressive, they can get pushed off their routes by a physical DB. But that's also easier said than done when a guy is playing hurt.

A LOT OF young receiver talent arrives in the fall – the Cougs signed Bobby Ratliff, Marquess Wilson, Robert Jiles, Blair Bomber, Kristoff Williams and Isiah Barton (JC) this class. But they're young -- freshmen, save for Barton.

The two fastest guys of that incoming group might be Barton and Bomber, but both might be better utilized as a slot-type rather than outside deep threats. In any event, those questions are for fall camp.

This spring, can Forzani put it all together and become a consistent threat? Will Karstetter raise his game to the next level? Will Simone take a few leaps and bounds up the improvement scale after a true freshman season where he caught 33 passes for 330 yards? Will Solomon and Blackledge be healthy and will that translate to aggressive, productive play? Just some of the WR questions headed into the spring.


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