OL, Morton look to beat double A gap blitz

THE TOP JOB THIS SPRING on offense is clear, to get the o-line squared away. Cougar fans received good news this offseason when Steve Morton was named the assistant coach in charge of the unit -- he brings with him a wealth of o-line coaching experience. In particular, he's adept at countering the one thing that hurt WSU most last season.

That would be the Double A Gap Blitz. Two linebackers blitz, or threaten to blitz, lining up on the center's right and left shoulders. The Cougs couldn't stop it last year, and so opponents just kept on running it.

But Morton has been effectively battling that particular defensive wrinkle for decades, along with all manner of other defensive schemes. He does have a big challenge in front of him given how the Cougs performed up front in 2009. But many think he's also just the perfect guy for the job.

It's not complicated, the reasons why WSU's 2009 offense was stuck in neutral. It wouldn't have made much of a difference if the Cougs would have had the best quarterback and running back ever to play the game in the backfield. The offensive line was decimated by injuries and they weren't deep to begin with. At times, they were simply porous -- the ballcarrier or passer had no time and no chance.

THE INDIVIDUAL TALENT on the line exceeds the performance they turned in last season. But they didn't play well as a unit and on the offensive line the margin for error is small -- if four are assignment perfect and one is not, it can still spell disaster. Building continuity will be a must this spring.

The Cougs return Zack Williams at guard and when he was healthy, about half the season in '09, there were times he mauled opponents. He didn't do everything right, no one ever does, but he did show enough to confirm he was a prescient recruiting pick-up, and that he has the chance to be a top performer this coming season. Williams also played center in junior college.

At center, the Cougs lose their best o-line player, Kenny Alfred, to graduation. But waiting in the wings is someone who showed he was capable as a freshman. Andrew Roxas missed all of last season recuperating from viral hepatitis, is now back to full strength. Roxas -- as a true frosh in '07 -- started for an ailing Alfred against UCLA and proceeded to stomp his man all game long.

The other guard spot looks to be ably filled by B.J. Guerra -- Paul Wulff is high on his potential. Guerra, says Wulff, has what it takes to compete at a high level in the Pac-10 and as a redshirt junior in '10, the time to do that is most assuredly now.

Tackle has questions -- Wade Jacobson and David Gonzales will take part in their first spring session with the Cougs, joining fifth year tackle Micah Hannam, who has started the past three years, and Tyson Pencer is also in the mix.

If Jacobson performs as advertised, he could emerge from the spring as a starter. Pencer, a 6-7, 297-pound Canadian native looked outmatched last season but Wulff has said he is every bit as athletically gifted as Michael Roos, the NFL tackle Wulff mentored at Eastern. Meanwhile, Hannam has continued to start year after year.

The Cougs would probably like to redshirt Gonzales and the dark horse in the tackle mix is Alex Reitnouer. Undersized last season at about 260 pounds, injuries were so bad in 2009 that the Cougs were forced to start Reitnouer. If he puts on significant weight this offseason, his trial by fire experience might pay dividends in 2010.

WHAT OTHER O-LINEMEN might make a mark this spring?

Steven Ayers will move back inside, a more natural position for the redshirt junior-to-be. Tim Hodgdon, William Prescott and Sebastian Valenzuela spent their freshmen seasons redshirting. Hodgdon and "Sea Bass" are likely inside linemen, with Prescott a tackle. Outstanding redshirt freshmen o-linemen are rare but not unheard of -- are there any in this group? Spring could give a first indicator on that question.

John Fullington and potentially Jake Rodgers (TE/OL) arrive in the fall true freshmen hardly ever play in the Pac-10 up front and even fewer succeed -- the success of the 2010 line will be determined by those getting ready to begin spring ball in 10 days.

The Cougs will have more experienced depth this season than last so should injuries hit, they should be better equipped to deal with it than last year. Injuries to front line starters would still hurt, there's a reason a starter is the starter. But WSU should be able to absorb them a little bit better should they strike.

The Cougs need to be, and should be, at least serviceable up front in 2010. There were times last season they put together 14- 15- even 19-play drives. If they can stay relatively healthy, or at least not suffer catastrophic number losses, they should be able to do more of that in 2010. This spring, when only four players total are expected to miss the 15-practice session beginning March 25, might be a good indicator they're ready to say goodbye to the huge numbers of walking wounded. (Last spring, 24 Cougs sat out with injury).

And if Steve Morton can work a little of his magic, if a few of those listed above can turn a corner, then WSU will be on its way to proving what Wulff predicted back in December -- that the Cougs will be one of the most improved teams you'll see this season.

NOTABLE NOTE:
None of the Cougs expected to miss the spring are offensive linemen. The four slated to sit out as they rehab from injury -- RB James Montgomery, LB Louis Bland, DB Anthony Houston and DT Josh Luapo.


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