There's nothing that can happen in the offseason that will convince anyone on the outside that much has changed about Washington State's football team as it enters the 2010 season.
The Cougars will likely be a unanimous pick to again finish last in the conference, having gone 1-17 the last two years -- the one win being the only time the Cougars came within double-digits of a conference opponent.
Those stark stats have third-year coach Paul Wulff squarely on the hot seat entering 2010, especially with a new athletic director in the fold -- Bill Moos -- who helped turn Oregon into a perennial Pac-10 contender.
Wulff, though, says he's not concerned about his status, recently telling The Seattle Times that "it's about them (his players), not about me."
And the players, he feels, are well positioned to break the Cougars out of the doldrums this season.
"This team still has work to do for us to get to where we want to be," he said after the Cougars concluded spring practice. "But in our 15 practices this spring, WSU football got better."
It could hardly have gotten worse as the Cougars are 3-22 in Wulff's tenure, and never held a lead in regulation last season, winning its one game only when it forced overtime late and then emerged victorious.
But the Cougars lost only four seniors who were significant contributors last season -- two on each side of the ball -- and Wulff feels the depth is finally to the levels needed to be competitive.
"This is by far the best spring we've had since we've been here," he said. "We had more guys participating, which gave us competition at every position, and we got better."
The most noteworthy competition was at quarterback, where sophomore Jeff Tuel battled with junior Marshall Lobbestael. Wulff insisted as spring closed that there was no clear leader. But Tuel, who impressed in four starts last season before being sidelined with a knee injury, appeared ahead.NOTES, QUOTES
--The Cougars continue to get good news on the progress of senior RB James Montgomery, who suffered a calf injury early last season that was initially described as career-ending. Montgomery didn't take part in spring, but head coach Paul Wulff said that he is doing well enough that he should be able to return to action this fall. A transfer from Cal and a highly-touted recruit out of Sacramento in 2006, he could be a starter if healthy.
--Observers raved in the spring about the improvement of the offensive line, thanks to the addition of new OL coach Steve Morton, a former WSU player who served in the same position for the Cougars under Jim Walden from 1978-86. Morton has worked at a variety of schools since then, including Southern Cal and Washington, before returning to Pullman this year when former OL coach Harold Etheridge was fired.
--DT Brandon Rankin: The highly-touted JC transfer looked the part all spring, showing a quickness and athleticism up front the Cougars have been lacking throughout the Paul Wulff era. He looks like a certain starter.
--CB Daniel Simmons: The sophomore showed no ill effects of a leg injury suffered midway through last season and emerged as a starter at one cornerback, with coaches saying he has all-conference potential. He appears WSU's best man-to-man cover corner.
--RB Chantz Staden: The team's best kickoff returner in 2008, he missed last season with a knee injury. But he proved healthy in the spring and ended spring number one on the depth chart.
--OT Wade Jacobsen: He missed some of spring with some minor injuries, but the touted JC transfer did enough to indicate he could be a starter come fall.
--WR Jared Karstetter: WSU's receivers struggled at times throughout the spring. But the 6-4 junior was the one consistent threat the Cougars had throughout and emerged as the likely main playmaker for this fall.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Both Jeff (Tuel) and Marshall (Lobbestael) did some great things this spring. We did find out (in the spring) that we have two quarterbacks who can help us win in the Pac-10." -- Coach Paul Wulff, insisting the QB battle remains open heading into fall camp.STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010 OUTLOOK: After two of the worst seasons in school history -- a 3-22 overall mark and 1-17 in Pac-10 play -- expectations remain low for the Cougars heading into 2010. Fans are hoping for improvement, but the reality is that the Cougars have a long way to go just to reach respectability, let alone think about making much of a move in the Pac-10.
Given the team's recent struggles and a depth chart that still appears shy of talent, the Cougars are likely to be an almost unanimous pick to finish last in the Pac-10 this fall.
But hope spring eternal, and the Cougars think they can be more competitive this season as a couple of recruiting classes that have been considered better than what was signed during the Bill Doba era begin to mature. Still, anything other than a last-place finish will be considered a major accomplishment this season.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: For the first time since Alex Brink left in 2007 the Cougars feel they have some legitimate depth at quarterback, with sophomore Jeff Tuel and junior Marshall Lobbestael each returning with some significant starting experience. Tuel, who showed a nice ability to throw accurately and to know where to go with the ball, is the likely starter.
WSU thinks it has some talent at the WR and RB positions. The big concern remains the offensive line, where the Cougars will be counting on some immediate help from JC transfers at the tackle spots. If the OL improves, the Cougars appear to have the skill position players to move the ball. WR Jared Karstetter, a 6-4 junior, may be WSU's best threat.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Cougars allowed an astonishing 38.5 points and 512 yards per game last season, and as the saying goes, can only get better.
Like the offense, the primary hope for improvement rests in the maturation of a lot of young players and the addition of some new redshirts and transfers.
WSU could finally field a legitimate defensive line as end Travis Long was one of the better freshman in the conference a year ago and JC transfer Brandon Rankin looks like the real deal at tackle.
The linebacking corps and secondary also return almost everyone and should be improved. Players to watch there include strongside linebacker Myron Beck and MLB Alex Hoffman-Ellis.
The Cougars also think they have two legitimate Pac-10 cornerbacks in junior Aire Justin and sophomore Daniel Simmons.
SCOUTING THE SPECIAL TEAMS: WSU's special teams the last few years haven't been much better than the offense or defense the past few years, ranking near the bottom of the Pac-10 in every category but punting.
But there is hope for improvement here, as well. Punter Reid Forrest, one of the better ones in the conference the past few years, returns for his senior season. PK Nico Grasu also is back after an injury-riddled 2009. He showed promise in 2008, including kicking the winning field goal in overtime against Washington, WSU's only Pac-10 win of the Wulff era.
And the influx of new players has led to some additional options at the return spots.
S Casey Locker -- A freshman who redshirted a year ago, Locker may be best known for being a cousin of Washington QB Jake Locker. He was a fairly unheralded recruit -- UW didn't offer him a scholarship despite his linage. But WSU coaches said he emerged as one of the team's bright young faces as practice progressed in 2009 and he could compete for immediate playing time at a safety position that is wide open in 2010.
CB Nolan Washington -- A graduate of Seattle-area HS power Kennedy High, WSU coaches insisted he would have been one of the team's better corners last season but they decided to redshirt him for the good of the future of the program. WSU has struggled mightily at cornerback the last two years so if Washington is as good as advertised, he could become an immediate starter.
LB C.J. Mizell -- The Tallahasse native was something of a signing day surprise for the Cougars in 2010 and could turn out to be the highest immediate impact player in the class. Mizell was the No. 5 rated SLB in the nation by Scout.com in 2009 and signed with Florida State, before academic issues got in the way. With his options limited after that, he cast his lot with the Cougars and he could step right into a starting role on a WSU defense lacking big-time playmakers.
--LB Louis Bland, a starter as a true freshman in 2008 before suffering a knee injury that caused him to miss last season, didn't take part in spring ball but could be ready for the season, Wulff said.
--After spring practice closed, Scout.com reported that backup guard Steven Ayers would be forced to give up football after suffering a series of concussions. A junior, he was running number two at right guard.
--Kevin Kooyman, who received a sixth year of eligibility after sitting out last season with a knee injury, emerged as a starter at one defensive end spot as the spring ended.
Previous Report: 04/28/2010