PULLMAN – Kevin Lopina, who can be as subtle as a punch in the mouth when he’s talking about himself or anyone else, knows he didn’t win over a lot of Washington State football fans last season.
“I know there’s a lot of guys doubting me,” Lopina said.
Lopina, playing hurt most of the season, started eight games at quarterback for an inexperienced, injury-riddled team that was shut out three times during a 2-11 season. Lopina was quick to accept blame for his faults, and there were many during a season in which he threw 11 interceptions and no touchdown passes.
“It happened,” Lopina said. “It’s not like I didn’t complete any passes (87 of 153 for 57 percent). I completed a lot of passes, we just couldn’t get it in the end zone. Even in the run game, we struggled.”
Lopina took steps to ease the concerns of Cougars fans when he completed all six of his passes for 94 yards and a touchdown Saturday in WSU’s first full scrimmage. Lopina is competing with sophomore Marshall Lobbestael for the starting job.
“I’ve had competition my whole life at this position,” Lopina said. “Even in high school and back to Pop Warner, I’ve had competition. I’ve never been ‘The Guy’ until the coaches have decided.”
Lopina, a fifth-year senior who redshirted at Kansas State as a freshman, never took a snap in a college game until last year. He ran the veer at perennial prep powerhouse De La Salle in Concord, Calif.
Lopina said the Cougars have far more camaraderie than a year ago. Last November, he ripped into teammates after a 58-0 drubbing at Stanford, saying “it’s not really a big deal” to some players to lose. Coincidentally or not, the Cougars played harder and better in their remaining four games.
“When I come out to practice this year, I feel like everyone’s focused,” Lopina said. “No one has any issues off the field.”
Despite heated competition at quarterback and running back, those involved seem to be getting along quite well.
“We have each other’s back,” said Lopina, referring to himself and Lobbestael. “Whoever that guy is who is going to start against Stanford (in the Sept. 5 opener), I’ll support him or he’ll support me.
“It’s kind of good to know there’s two guys that can get it done from a team perspective.”
Dwight Tardy has led the Cougars in rushing three straight years, but California transfer James Montgomery is pushing Tardy for playing time.
“We hang out a lot,” Tardy said. “That’s my buddy. Great minds think alike. We help each other out.”
Still, Tardy stressed, “When we come out here (to the practice field), we’re not friends. We’re competing. But off the field, we’re best friends.”
Assistant Ball named best
Sporting News magazine ranks WSU co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball the best position coach in the Pacific-10 Conference. Ball coaches safeties.
Before returning to Pullman last year, Ball coached WSU’s secondary from 2000-02. The Cougars piled up 56 interceptions those three years. Ball then followed Mike Price to Alabama, and the Crimson Tide led the nation in pass defense in 2004 with Ball coaching the secondary.
Is it getting hot in Pullman?
Sports Illustrated picked a “coach on the hot seat” in each of the six Bowl Championship Series conferences. Wulff was SI’s pick in the Pac-10.
SI ranks the Cougars 105th out of 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“We don’t worry about rankings and all that,” senior safety Xavier Hicks said. “We worry about the guys in our locker room.”
“That stuff’s based on paper and last season, and that’s fine,” senior center Kenny Alfred said. “There’s not a whole lot anyone in the nation has to go off except our record last season.
“It’s a new season. Those (rankings) are preseason things. They can be a motivator for us.”
Alfred among top players
CollegeFootballNews.com ranked the top 200 college players, and Alfred came in 194th. Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was No. 1, and USC free safety Taylor Mays (a graduate of Seattle’s O’Dea High) was ranked second.
Alfred starred at Gig Harbor High. He has started since his freshman year at WSU, but a hip injury nagged him throughout his college career before he underwent surgery in the offseason.
“Kenny’s lost some weight and he’s moving clearly as well as he’s ever moved,” Wulff said.