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March 26, 2009

Despite struggles, hope springs for Cougars

Last season was a long one for new coach Paul Wulff and Washington State.

The offense couldn't consistently move the ball and the defense was awful, giving up more than 60 points four times. The lone bright spot: The Cougars were better than archrival Washington, which went winless.

Obviously, there is work to be done this spring for the Cougars. The highest priority is toughening up the offensive line, which too often resembled a sieve last season.

Here's a look at the Cougars as they prepare to open spring practice.

Paul Wulff's first season at Washington State was a long one.
Coach: Paul Wulff
Last season: 2-11, 1-8 Pac-10
Spring dates: March 26-April 25
Offense (7): C Kenny Alfred, WR Jeshua Anderson, G Brian Danaher, T Micah Hannam, QB Kevin Lopina, G Andrew Roxas, RB Dwight Tardy.
Defense (5): LB Louis Bland, FS Xavier Hicks, E Kevin Kooyman, SS Chima Nwachukwu, CB Romeo Pellum.
Special teams (2): P Reid Forrest, K Nico Grasu.
Positions of strength

Considering last season's two-win debacle, there isn't much that could be considered a strength. The Cougars could be solid at running back, with their top three rushers from '08 returning. Dwight Tardy rushed for 481 yards a year ago, sophomore Logwone Mitz added 441 and there is at least one newcomer in the mix for playing time.

Help is needed

Obviously, help is needed just about everywhere. The most pressing areas would appear to be offensive line and quarterback. The Cougars allowed 43 sacks in '08 only four teams nationally gave up more and three quarterbacks were lost to injury. Washington State was last in the Pac-10 in passing offense last season, so quarterbacks Kevin Lopina, Marshall Lobbestael and JT Levenseller must improve their production. Better protection would enhance their chances. There are seven offensive linemen returning who started at least twice last season, so there is some hope for improvement. There will be five new starters in the defensive front seven, and the Cougars have to get better against the run.

Keep an eye on

CB Brandon Jones: Jones, a junior, is a transfer from California and could help shore up the secondary. The Cougars return three-fourths of the starting secondary, but Washington State allowed 22 touchdown passes and made only 10 interceptions in '07.

RB James Montgomery: He sat out the 2008 season after transferring from California following his freshman season. He was a third-stringer at Cal, but he'll contend for the starting job in Pullman.

OL Zack Williams: Williams, who redshirted last season after transferring from junior college, could be the spackle that fills at least one hole in the offensive line. He was a center in junior college but could play guard for WSU.

His time is now

Senior Andy Mattingly has shuffled between defensive end and linebacker throughout his career, which seems to have limited his effectiveness. A strong '07 was followed by a so-so performance in '08, when he recorded 44 tackles and just one sack at end. He'll likely settle in at linebacker in '09.

The buzz

The great hope and optimism that came with Wulff's arrival faded quickly with three blowout losses to open last season. In all, the Cougars allowed at least 58 points six times and at least 63 four times. But spring always brings hope that all that was broken the previous season can be fixed. The three-way quarterback competition will draw most of the attention this spring. But it won't matter who emerges as the starter if the Cougars don't make significant progress in shoring up the offensive line. The competition in the secondary should be intriguing, too.

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

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