Kevin Kooyman is one of just four fifth-year seniors on the Cougar roster. Of the 19 high school seniors in WSU's 2006 recruiting class, only Kooyman, starting offensive lineman Micah Hannam, backup running back Marcus Richmond and backup defensive back Anthony Houston are still in the fold. Another classmate, Andy Mattingly, played as a true freshman so exhausted his eligibility in four years and is now off to try his hand as an NFL free agent.
"He's got a good all-around game, and he's done a really good job for us, probably more so than anything leadership-wise. He's really stepped up as a leader, just by example," Ball says of Kooyman. "He works hard. He's up here (at the football facilities and offices) all the time. He understands the positions, so he helps coach the younger guys. He's not much of a vocal guy, but he does a great job by leading by example."
That dedication to his work is one reason why The Seattle Times in 2006 dubbed Kooyman one of the "finest three-sport athletes in the state." Indeed, his career at Tahoma High south of Seattle was storybook. He earned All-State honors in football, was a state champion in wrestling, and an all-everything performer in track and field. All the while, he maintained a 3.95 GPA.
PRIOR TO LAST SEASON, Ball was named by The Sporting News magazine as the best position coach in the Pac-10. The fact that Washington State went on to finish last in the nation in defense tells you all you need to know about the injuries, talent level and youth Ball was coaching.
Indeed, injuries and lack of speed, depth and experience doomed the Cougars on both sides of the ball last year. Ball, who also serves as safeties coach, came away from spring practice convinced the 2010 Cougars will be much better on defense.
"We're definitely improved," Ball said after spring ball concluded Monday with a spirited 6 a.m. workout. "We're definitely stronger and faster. I think the kids have a good understanding of the defense, which helps, and they're playing with a lot more confidence."
Part of the reason for Ball's optimism is the return of Kooyman, who is slotted to start at defensive end opposite Travis Long. Kooyman missed all but the opening game last year with a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Like Mattingly, he was thrust into playing time as a true freshman in 2006, so he had a redshirt to burn.
And now he's a major cog in what looks to be a major turning point for the program.
Kooyman, never one to make outrageous public statements, said the Cougars "definitely" have a shot at a bowl game in 2010.
"We've had a lot of enthusiasm," Kooyman said. "We've lacked that in past years.
"We've got to come out with fire. Last year, we'd just get down in the beginning of games and let them take over.
"Now, it's a completely different game for us. Coaches are focusing on the intensity, making sure you turn it up at the beginning of practice and not wait for someone to do something. You know -- install your own motor and just get yourself pumped."
Kooyman is being asked to focus more on stopping the run than pass rushing, which is a change from previous years.
"It's kind of put me in a position to focus more on the run and on the back side of plays," Kooyman said. "There's still opportunities to get a pass rush, but it's definitely a different thing, and I've got the hang of it pretty well."
"We still like his pass rush," Ball said. "He's a great pass rusher."
Part of the reason for Kooyman's new role is the arrival of junior college All-American Brandon Rankin, a tackle with impressive pass-rushing skills.
"Rankin is a great player," Kooyman said. "He's going to be a great asset on our defensive line.
"He's athletic, he's big, he's strong. He's just going to be a great addition."
Watching Rankin up close and personal seems to have eased Kooyman's angst over not getting to pressure the quarterback as much as he would like.
"Sacks are the best play in football," Kooyman said with a smile. "I just love getting those."
Kooyman values wins even more than sacks, of course, and he seems confident there will not be a repeat of last year's 1-11 debacle.
"I'm not really going to put a number out there (for predicted wins), but I can say a great improvement on last year," Kooyman said. "Just because both the offense and defense is looking a lot better, and we've become a team.
"It's not like individuals out there. We've got to be able to trust each other, and I feel this spring, we've made a huge step."