Sorensen: Cougar QBs need to step it up

FOR AN OLD WARHORSE like me, it doesn't take long to draw conclusions about what's happening on a football field. After watching the Cougs workout on Friday I came away with several observations. Among them: Jeff Tuel and Marshall Lobbestael need to step it up because what they're doing now isn't good enough. Here's another one: true freshman John Fullington will be starting by mid season.

I'll get back to the quarterbacks and to Fullington in a moment. First, though, a forecast on the season generally and then some quick-hit thoughts about the 2010 Cougs.

For the forecast, the tempo and spirit I saw on Friday were outstanding and the kids appeared to be in tremendous physical condition. What that translates to in terms of wins and losses remains to be seen and depends in part on guys continuing to improve every day and remaining healthy.

This team is young and lacking depth in a number of spots, however. In many respects they remind me of the 1980 and 2000 Cougar teams. Both of those clubs won four games and were super competitive in most of the rest, which helped set the stage for great success the following year. That's where I'm at with this team. I see three or four wins and a competitive product that sets the table for a breakthrough in 2011.

Now for some quick observations:

  • Freshman C.J. Mizell is going to be a heckuva linebacker someday but right now he's lost out there. He's trying to think where he needs to be instead of knowing it intrinsically. Linebacking is a process that takes time.

  • I love the looks of the young defensive linemen – Jordan Pu'u-Robinson, Toni Pole, Sekope Kaufusi and walk-on Justin Mann. It's a true bummer that Robinson went down for the season Saturday with a knee.

  • The defense will be much faster this season and is starting to look like it could be 3 deep in spots. They're still young, however, so the results on the field figure to be a mixed bag. Over time, I think they'll be solid. I'd rate the depth of the defense far ahead of the offense.

  • Freshman receivers Marquess Wilson and Kristoff Williams are the real deal. So is freshman running back Rickey Galvin. He's only 5-8 but man oh man can that kid move. Whether it's him or somebody else, one of the running backs needs to start separating from the pack. Is there a Kerry Porter or Rich Swinton hiding there in the weeds? I'd like to think so.

  • The secondary is my favorite place on the field and Friday's efforts left me with three primary thoughts: senior safety Chima Nwachukwu is a great leader; third-year sophomore safety LeAndre Daniels is developing into a major talent; and walk-on safety Jack Wilson of Spokane's Gonzaga Prep is one fast, scrappy kid who might have a future in the Pac-10.

    NOW LET'S TALK ABOUT Fullington and the offense line. I'd heard a ton of great things about this true freshman from Belfair, Wash., but actually seeing him in action was like stepping into a time warp. This kid is the reincarnation of my old Cougar teammate Allan Kennedy, who went on to win two Super Bowls with the 49ers.

    At WSU, Allan was the biggest guy ever to put on a Cougar uniform. As a senior in 1980 he was 6-7, 275. He was a monster in that era. Fullington seems like a clone -- 6-5 and 268. Of course, 268 in the modern era would suggest that he redshirt this season and pack on some pounds. But I don't think so. This kid has a motor that doesn't stop and tremendous athleticism. Best of all, he's taking to Steve Morton's coaching like ham on rye. He's tough as nails and hard working. Call me Mr. Glass Half Full if you will but I see this kid eventually knocking Micah Hannam out of the starting right tackle spot. And that's saying something because Micah has started 37 games for the Cougs so far in his career.

    When Paul Wulff talks about improving the athleticism of the offensive line, Fullington is the model. Did you notice that second-year walk-on Elliot Bosch has moved from tight end to center? That's also part of the movement to increase athleticism in the trenches. I love those Spokane guys and I can see Bosch competing for a starting job next season. Another big body from Spokane who I could see moving to the offensive line is Dan Spitz. He's a 6-6, 279-pound defensive tackle right now, but given his size and athleticism -- as well as the Cougars' growing depth on D -- I could see him making a switch to O and just pancaking people.

    A quick note about Morton, who was a Cougar assistant when I played at WSU. His addition to the staff is huge. He's a true expert in what he does and he has the eye of the tiger, which he clearly is imparting on his troops. What I saw Friday in the offensive line was impressive. Even when guys missed an assignment they were getting their hat on somebody and fighting hard to the whistle.

    OKAY, SO LET'S MOVE ON TO the quarterbacks. I like Tuel and Lobbestael. Tuel was thrown into the fire last season as a true freshman and battled hard. Lobbestael, who was derailed two years ago by a knee injury, is fighting his way back and clearly more confident in his repaired wheel. They both have skills to succeed at this level.

    So far this fall camp they've completed a ton of passes and had some shining moments.

    But I wasn't impressed by what I saw Friday. Sure, they completed a bunch of passes. In fact, I think Lobbestael connected on four or five straight at one point. Here's the problem: They're playing it safe. In my opinion, they're too often taking the path of least resistance. They're not standing in the pocket as long as I'd like them to. They're checking down too often for my taste, going for the short pass rather than looking downfield. They're also rushing themselves at times -- perhaps a remnant of running for their lives so often last season, but not something they should be conditioned to do with this year's improved offensive line in front of them.

    This is the Pac-10. These guys need to play at a higher level than what I saw. Much higher. They need to release the ball more quickly. They need to fire downfield more and split seams. They need to have more confidence in their receivers. They need to stay in the pocket longer.

    Maybe it was just an off day. Maybe as they get used to having better protection this year than last they'll get more comfortable taking control. Regardless, the quarterback play I saw Friday isn't going to make many waves in a bitch of a conference like the Pac-10.


    You can call me biased if you want, because I watched Connor Halliday play all through high school with my son Cody, but if I were Tuel and Lobbestael I'd be looking over my shoulder. Halliday has no fear of stretching the field or staying in the pocket. He needs to put on about 25 pounds of muscle and he needs to get his head -- which is spinning right now -- around the playbook. When he does, watch out.

    A FINAL THOUGHT ON THE 2010 Cougars. They're very young but faster and bigger than they've been in a long time. To win this season, two primary things need to happen. First, the offense must sustain drives, which will allow the defense to rest, and convert those drives into points. Second, the defense and special teams need to find ways to win -- blocking punts, sacking quarterbacks at key times, etc. This team doesn't yet have the depth or experience to go head-to-head with much of their Pac-10 brethren so they need to figure out how to steal some thunder. If they do, maybe 2010 can be a little more than a stage setter for 2011.

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Paul Sorensen played safety for the Cougars from 1980-81, earning first-team All-American honors as a senior. He later played in the NFL and USFL. From 1985-98 he was the color commentator on radio broadcasts of Cougar football. He has held a similar role on Eastern Washington University broadcasts over the last several years. Also a long-time assistant coach in the Greater Spokane League, he's been writing periodically for CF.C since 1999. His columns here are labeled SLAP! The acronym stands for Sorensen Looks At the Program. The word also aptly describes the way Paul played safety and the way he does color commentary: in-your-face, nothing held back.

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