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March 5, 2011

Hope springs at Washington State

Injuries have been more synonymous with Washington State football than losses lately. That's especially alarming considering the Cougars have managed just five victories over the past three seasons.

The feeling in eastern Washington is that sooner or later the Cougars -- who had 35 players miss a least one game with an injury last season -- are due a relatively injury-free run. They have the law of averages going for them.

But they also have a solid quarterback, a good group of receivers and a depth chart that last season was filled with young players.

The Cougars showed progress in the second half of last season. They upset Oregon State and played Stanford, California and Washington within 10 points, so there is hope for a better showing in 2011.

Those hopes will be enhanced if injuries are avoided and young players continue to improve during spring drills. Here's a look at the Cougars as they prepare to open spring practice.

Jeff Tuel threw for 2,780 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.
Coach: Paul Wulff
Last season: 2-10 overall, 1-8 in the Pac-10
Spring dates: March 7-April 16.
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (6): T David Gonzales, G B.J. Guerra, G Wade Jacobson, WR Jared Karstetter, QB Jeff Tuel, WR Marquess Wilson.
Defense (7): SS Deone Bucannon, LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis, E Travis Long, T Brandon Rankin, CB Daniel Simmons, FS Tyree Toomer, CB Nolan Washington.
Special teams (0): None.
Positions of strength

Jeff Tuel is one of the most underappreciated quarterbacks in the country. He threw for 2,780 yards and 18 touchdowns last season despite having virtually no help from a running game and an offensive line that provided minimal protection. The Cougars are set at receiver, too. Sophomore Marquess Wilson had an impressive debut season with 55 receptions and an 18.3 yards-per-catch average. Senior Jared Karstetter is a big target who posted team-highs with 62 catches and seven touchdowns.

Help is needed

The cliche is that games are won and lost in the trenches, which at least in part explains Washington State's poor records in recent seasons. Hampered by injuries and inexperience, the Cougars' offensive line allowed 51 sacks last season -- the second-highest total in the country. Meanwhile, the running game averaged just 91.0 yards per game. Significant improvement obviously is needed. It's needed along the defensive line, too. Washington State ranked 115th in rushing defense and managed just 23 sacks last season. Injuries were at least a part of the problem, but the Cougars can't even wish for a bowl game until they get better against the run.

3 guys to watch

RB Rickey Galvin: Galvin was being counted upon to play a lot last season, but he broke his wrist in the first game and missed the rest of the season. He isn't big (5 feet 8/162 pounds) but brings much-needed speed and big-play ability to the offense.

DT Kalafitoni Pole: A lower leg injury forced him to sit out a redshirt season, but when Pole was able to practice, he showed great promise. He was able to get pressure in the pass rush and -- at 6-1 and 291 pounds -- could develop into the run-stuffer the Cougars so desperately need.

WR Kristoff Williams: The word in Pullman is that Williams, a converted high school quarterback, is every bit as good as Wilson. If that appraisal proves true, the Cougars' receiving corps would be among the best in the Pac-12. Williams redshirted last season because of turf toe, but he is expected to be back at full speed this spring.

The pressure is on

RB Louis Bland: He switched from running back to linebacker soon after he arrived in Pullman in 2008. He started the final nine games of that season and showed great promise by averaging nearly five tackles per game. But he's trying to overcome knee injuries that forced him to miss the second half of the '09 season and all of last season. He has the speed and range to help Washington State bolster its run defense -- if he shows this spring that he's fully recovered.

The buzz

After seven football seasons without a winning record, there are no championship delusions coming out of Pullman. But there is hope the Cougars can make a run at six wins and a bowl appearance. There is a feeling that the talent level has been upgraded, and there have been several changes on the coaching staff, too. The hope is that the players and new coaches will make major progress this spring toward putting an improved team on the field this fall.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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