WULFF: Cougs young, but rising

PAUL WULFF frequently talks about program development. He wants to redshirt the bulk of his incoming freshmen and "layer" classes in hopes of becoming a consistent bowl contender. And while Wulff, who begins his third season at WSU at 4 p.m. Saturday (FSN) when the Cougars play at Oklahoma State, concedes the program has not reached that point yet, he is beginning to see it throughout his roster.

"We feel like we're a much, much improved football team," said Paul Wulff. "It isn't anyone's ideal opener in some regards. I believe we've approached it as a big stick for us to reach. I think we're going to play well."

That plan begins at quarterback. When Wulff was asked Tuesday to contrast this year's team to the one he opened with two years ago against OSU in a 39-13 loss at Qwest Field, he began with sophomore signal-caller Jeff Tuel.

"The players are hearing the same voice all the time now," said Wulff, adding that Tuel has progressed in typical fashion from his freshman year, when he made five starts, with improved strength and decision-making ability.

The rest of the roster remains young -- the Cougars only list four senior starters on both sides of the ball -- but Wulff expects significant improvement everywhere as most players on the depth chart have been in the program for multiple years.

That particularly is true on the defensive side, where Wulff said his staff intentionally invested more scholarships the last few seasons to fix depth issues. But he also noted that the Cougars have sustained a couple of significant losses on defense and some true freshmen will have to play.

Redshirt sophomore LeAndre Daniels suffered a career-ending neck injury during fall camp and junior linebacker Louis Bland will redshirt this year as he recovers from surgery on his left knee. Wulff said Bland is "potentially our best player" and is excited at the prospect for him being healthy for the 2011 and '12 seasons.

Two true freshmen listed on the depth chart, safety Deone Bucannon and cornerback Damante Horton, will play. Linebacker C.J. Mizell was not listed, but Wulff said he will travel and might play both on defense and special teams.

WSU will take 70 players -- Wulff said the Pac-10 coaches voted to increase the travel squad number from 64 during the spring -- to Stillwater, Okla. Those extra half-dozen players could become important because the Cowboys hired former University of Houston offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen during the offseason. Wulff said his system is similar to the one used by former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach.

"They're a very fast tempo," he said. "They try and get 100 plays in a game. They're always on attack. If you don't make any plays on them, they're going to score a lot of points."

But Wulff said he expects some differences -- Holgorsen does not have a veteran quarterback to work with this season. OSU is expect to start 26-year-old former baseball player Brandon Weeden.

On offense, Wulff said it simply comes down to execution. Even with Tuel returning, the offensive line has been reworked under new coach Steve Morton. Two juniors, left tackle David Gonzalez and left guard Wade Jacobson, will make their first starts after transferring from junior colleges.

"They're not going to be playing Feather River College anymore," Wulff said.

But he also added that both linemen have exceeded his expectations. He said Jacobson adds toughness to the line, while Gonzalez, who some consider undersized at 6 foot 6, 275 pounds, compensates for his lack of strength with sound technique.

Senior running back James Montgomery is expected to get the majority of carries behind the reworked line. Before compartment syndrome in his left leg nearly ended his career last year, Montgomery led the team with 167 yards on 37 carries through three games. "He's playing pretty darn well," said Wulff, adding that he also expects senior Chantz Staden, who is returning from a knee injury that sidelined him last year, junior Logwone Mitz and true freshman Rickey Galvin to back up Montgomery.

Senior Daniel Blackledge, junior Jared Karstetter and sophomore Gino Simone are the starters at wide receiver, but Wulff said true freshman Marquess Wilson is emerging. Some think Wilson could be the Cougars' next great wide receiver.

"He's got all the basic skills you could ever ask for," said Wulff, adding that Wilson still needs to become stronger. "He has a very bright future if he dedicates himself. He probably can play this game for quite awhile."

Another area where Wulff expects substantial improvement is on special teams. He hired Dave Ungerer, who previously coached at Alabama in addition to a pair of Pac-10 schools, to guide that unit.

"Our expectation is that we'll be a lot faster and more physical than we've been," Wulff said. "We just have more kids that we can work with that will hit you."

Wulff said some key special-teams players include sophomore walk-on Kyle McCartney and redshirt freshman Jamal Atofau, Blackledge and Wilson. Then there is walk-on Jack Wilson, a true freshman from Spokane's Gonzaga Prep, who impressed Wulff so much during fall camp that he will play this year.

"He's had a heck of a camp," Wulff said. "He's done well on special teams in every drill."

The Cougars also will take two kickers to Stillwater. Wulff said senior Nico Grasu will handle kickoffs and have the first opportunity to attempt an extra point or field goal. But true freshman Andrew Furney could replace Grasu if he struggles. However, Wulff said, he also does not want to put too much on Furney.

Wulff reiterated that offensive tackle John Fullington will play as a true freshman. That decision was not made because WSU lacks depth on the offensive line. Wulff said that Fullington forced the issue because his play is advanced in comparison not just with true freshmen, but those who have redshirted.

"John is very mature and competitive," Wulff said. "He's got the right makeup mentally. I think he's just one of those guys that you've got to play."

Wulff announced early Tuesday that true freshman wide receiver Kristoff Williams will not play against OSU because of turf toe. He also will not be among those traveling to the game. Wulff said he wants to be cautious with Williams because he has seen turf-toe injuries derail careers when they become severe. He noted that Williams has made some progress in the last three or four days and is able to run underwater. Probable to play are sophomore fullback Jared Byers (foot), redshirt freshman cornerback Nolan Washington (hip) and junior cornerback Aire Justin (hamstring).

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