WSU Cougars

Plenty of questions for Cougs

For the second straight year, Paul Wulff says the Washington State Cougars are improved.

For the second straight year, Wulff stops short of saying the Cougars are definitely ready to win consistently.

WSU still appears to lack the speed, strength, experience, depth and overall talent necessary to make a major impact in the Pacific-10 Conference. However, the Cougars showed signs of progress in all three areas during spring practice, and Wulff said he expects improvement to continue this fall.

“We’re bringing in players that can compete in the Pac-10 and win in the Pac-10,” Wulff said Friday as he prepared for today’s first fall practice.

The Cougars, coming off a 1-11 season that included an 0-9 showing in the Pac-10, do not have a proven standout at any position with the possible exception of senior punter Reid Forrest. WSU ranked among the nation’s worst teams offensively and defensively last season.

WSU would benefit greatly from big seasons by sophomore Jeff Tuel at quarterback and junior college transfers Isiah Barton and Brandon Rankin at wide receiver and defensive tackle, respectively. True freshman receiver Marquess Wilson could play a prominent role.

Wulff says the latter players may develop into the big-play performers the Cougars have lacked the past two years. Junior linebacker Louis Bland has shown flashes of big-play potential, but Wulff said Bland may be forced to sit out the year while recovering from major knee surgery last winter.

Five key questions face the 2010 Cougars:

1. Can the offense move the ball?

WSU could open the season with a sophomore quarterback (Tuel) who has five college starts, a senior running back (James Montgomery) with no college starts and an offensive line with junior college transfers (Wade Jacobson and David Gonzales) manning both tackle positions. That’s not exactly a proven formula for spicing up an offense that averaged just 12 points, 71 rushing yards and 249 total yards last season.

2. Can the defense stop anybody?

The Cougars are bigger, stronger, faster and more experienced than a year ago, but they need improvement in all those areas. Defensive tackle Brandon Rankin, a pass-rushing phenom as a junior college defensive end two years ago, was often dominant in spring drills after redshirting last season because of academic ineligibility. WSU ranked last in the nation in 2009, allowing 512 yards per game. Only two teams gave up more than the 38.5 points the Cougars surrendered on average.

3. Do the Cougars have enough leaders?

The Cougars have 20 seniors, but nine are transfers, two are walk-ons and at least three will play only on special teams. A program that has lost more games (22) in two years than any other in Pac-10 history needs all the leadership it can get from players and coaches. A slow start will create more calls for the head of Paul Wulff.

4. Can WSU stay healthy?

Now that the team is making significant progress in the weight room, coaches hope that injuries can be drastically reduced to help cover for a lack of depth.

5. Can the Cougars at least gain some respect?

It will be difficult to keep spirits high if the Cougars are again outscored 176-6 in first quarters and 308-50 in first halves, as they were last year.