The Crimson and Gray look ready to emerge
There is no doubt about it, this Washington State Cougars football team is ready to finally take that next step in the seemingly never-ending rebuilding project that began what seemed like ages ago.
The excitement that comes with new head coach Mike Leach doesn’t strip the fact the team is still in the midst of a total rebuild – but they’re very close.
Here’s a look at five names that will have an immediate impact in 2012.
Travis Long – DL/BUCK LB
The senior is coming off his best year in a Cougar uniform for which he was named to the Pac-12 All Conference second team. The big lineman tallied 42 tackles and ranked fifth in the Pac-12 with 12.0 tackles-for-a-loss in 2011.
New defensive coordinator Mike Breske wants to utilize Travis Long all over the field as essentially a BUCK linebacker – playing on the line while also dropping back in coverage from time to time.
Four years ago Long snubbed Boise State to come play for the struggling Cougars and WSU linebackers coach Jeff Choate couldn’t be happier. After all, this offseason Choate decided to leave Boise State to come coach for Mike Leach and the new coach had kind words to say about Long.
“There’s probably not one player that we didn’t get in the last six years that we wanted as bad as Travis Long,” Choate said.
The blitz-happy Breske can’t wait to unleash his new toy. Look for Long to have a monster year from a variety of spots on the field whether it be with his hands down, dropping in coverage, or flying off the corner on a stunt.
Andrei Lintz – TE/WR
The news that Mike Leach was coming to Washington State was probably tough to hear for the majority of Cougar tight ends. Leach’s offenses rarely use the traditional tight end position in the wide-open air raid.
The coaching change caused former four-star tight end Aaron Dunn, who has struggled with injuries throughout his career, to transfer.
But for one Cougar tight end, it was chance to prove himself.
Andrei Lintz, the 6-5, 252-pound senior-to-be relished in Leach’s offense this spring and might have found himself a starting spot when the Cougars open up the season against BYU. Leach loves Lintz’s athletic build and his ability to get down the field and reel in passes in traffic.
More importantly, Leach also loves his physicality.
With his dynamic frame, Lintz will be able to use his hands to separate himself from much smaller defenders at the line of scrimmage and find wide-open spaces.
It’s a new wrinkle to the already potent air-raid offense and one that Leach can’t wait to deploy. Yet, the coach has his own envisions of what Lintz could be like on the field.
“He needs to be like one of those grizzly bears in Yellowstone Park that start tipping over dumpsters and throwing garbage out of them at the lodges,” Leach said.
Well said coach, well said. I’m expecting a huge senior year from Lintz in the slot position and, for Leach’s sake, hopefully he will “bear” the load. And now that nobody laughed, lets move on.
Dominique Williams – WR
Most of the talk this spring was about standout wide receiver Marquess Wilson but the man that will be lining up across the field from Wilson is a name that many are soon to know. Dominique Williams might just be the X-factor in the Cougar’s offense this season.
We all know most of the defensive attention is going to be focused on Wilson, so it is going to be Williams’ job to direct some of those defenders’ attention his way.
Williams, a redshirt freshman, is almost identical in stature to Wilson. Standing at 6-2, 180-pounds the wideout has what it takes to be a real threat in the passing game this year. He showed that potential in the Crimson and Gray game earlier this spring when he hauled in five passes for 121 yards and a touchdown.
That performance, coupled with a strong spring, has coaches and fans excited for Williams’ debut in a Cougar uniform.
He’ll most definitely rotate with Bobby Ratliff during the first few games of the year, but look for Williams to be given the starting nod by mid-season.
Xavier Cooper – DL
For the Cougar defense to improve and keep opposing teams off the field in 2012, the defensive line is going to have to be much better. Arguably the biggest bright spot for the Cougars’ defensive line this spring was Xavier Cooper, the redshirt freshman from Tacoma.
Cooper grayshirted due to academic problems in 2010 but former head coach Paul Wulff clearly stated that, had it not been for troubles in the classroom, the defensive lineman would have seen plenty of playing time as a freshman.
With his grades in line, Cooper excelled this spring showcasing an explosive first move and deceiving top-end speed. The 6-4, 278-pounder worked with the first team defense at defensive end and is adjusting well into the 3-4 defense.
At this point, Cooper’s strength allows him to take on two men inside but he’s fast enough to get on the outside and reach the quarterback but he’s still very raw.
New defensive line coach Joe Salave’a says, “He’s still growing,” which could be a scary thought for opposing quarterbacks due to Cooper’s outstanding athleticism.
Around 40 tackles and four to five sacks wouldn’t be an unrealistic assumption considering the strong audition he put on this spring.
Eric Oertel – LB
Some people familiar with Cougar football might remember Eric Oertel as a linebacker-turned-running back, and for the most part you’d be right. But, with the dismissals of stud linebacker’s Sekope Kaufusi and C.J. Mizell, the Cougars have found themselves extremely thin at the linebacking position.
So, the new coaching staff decided to move Oertel back to his natural linebacking position this spring to help add some depth to a depleted linebacking core.
And thus far, all reports are solid.
In fact, Oertel was the biggest surprise throughout early season workouts despite switching positions to different sides of the ball for the third consecutive year. The junior, who played sparingly his freshman and sophomore years, looks to be in line to compete for a starting spot this fall.
His speed and size at 6-1, 197-pounds has allowed Oertel to make the move look easy, according to Choate.
“A guy like Eric is going to understand pass protections because he played tailback and he’s going to know what those running backs are going to try to do to him as a blitzer and I think those things can be beneficial,” Choate said.
Oertel was flying around the field, laying huge hits, and really coming into his own at the linebacking position this spring. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him flourish in the 3-4 and have a big year in Breske’s attacking defense.