Happy Friday Coug Fans! With every day, Spring Football draws closer and I am here to talk about what many think will be THE key to a big turnaround in 2011, the offensive line. Over the last three seasons we have witnessed an epidemic of sacks and the complete absence of an effective running game. Improvement has been elusive as the unit often resembled a M.A.S.H. unit, more than a Pac-10 offensive line.
Most observers will agree that the Cougs have assembled some fine talent at the skill positions on offense and now we are just waiting for the line to catch up in order for this team to really take off. Will the Spring offer any answers as to what we can expect from this unit in the Fall? I think it will and I’ll break it all down after the jump…
Last season the Cougs brought in veteran O-line coach Steve Morton to oversee the re-building of the offensive line. The unit he inherited had lost scores of starts to injuries, and a number of players to early departures including Steven Ayers, Kevin Freitag and Brian Danaher to career ending injuries, and Joe Eppele and Will Prescott to career changes (the CFL and pro boxing respectively).
On top of all that the Cougs had just graduated their senior leader and one of the few consistent performers they had in Kenny Alfred. In order to help off-set these losses, the Cougs mined the JC ranks and came up with a couple immediate contributors in David Gonzalez and Wade Jacobson. They also burned the red-shirt of talented freshman John Fullington as they searched for an answer at the all important left tackle position that protects Jeff Tuel’s blind side in the pocket.
There was a lot of shuffling around in 2010 and it showed as the unit continued to struggle opening holes for the run game and surrendered almost 50 sacks. But out of those struggles the foundations for a solid O-line were laid and with only one departing senior, center Zack Williams, it means that the Cougs enter Spring ball with 4 of the 5 positions in the hands of returning players with at least a full season of Pac-10 action under their belt.
Lets start off with the leading candidate at each position and then we’ll talk about the guys who will be pushing them for their spots starting this Spring.
LT – I am going to put Fullington here for now. The sophomore-to-be got plenty of experience last year as a key reserve early and eventually forced into starting duty. He acquitted himself very well for a slightly undersized true freshman and continues to be a favorite of the coaching staff. If his current trajectory continues he will only get bigger, stronger and better and is likely to hold this spot down for the duration of his career at Wazzu.
LG – I am going to put BJ Guerra here, though he could be a RG too for all I know.
When healthy, BJ has been a steady performer and consistent held onto his starting position, so its safe to say the position is his to lose entering his senior campaign.
C – This is the only position I see as wide open with the departure of Zack “low snap” Williams. Andrew Roxas has been rumored to be a center for a couple years now, but illness and injuries have kept him off the field and it now appears that walk-on former tight end Elliot Bosch is getting a good look at this position. In addition JC center Taylor Meighen enrolled this Spring in order to challenge for the center spot, but just this week his sister was killed in a tragic car accident, so the young man has much more important things to deal with at home with his family right now.
RG – The other guard spot seems to be solidly in the hands of Wade Jacobson.
Jacobson was a bit of a journeyman last year, getting time at both tackle and guard positions, but he has made a home for himself inside and has added a good amount of bulk since showing up last Spring after his JC career.
RT – I will give David Gonzalez the nod here. Gonzalez was somewhat of a surprise starter at tackle last year, impressing the coaches and earning the job in Fall camp. Unfortunately he was injured part way through the season, but he gained some solid experience before that and looks to be healthy and working hard to continue to add strength and weight. He will be an interesting player to watch this Spring and see how he is progressing in his recovery.
Tyson Pencer - The mammoth Canadian will most likely continue to get looks at both tackle spots and at the very least should be a key reserve.
He has yet to meet his potential, but last year was only his sophomore season so a lot of football remains for Pencer.
Alex Reitnour – Reitnour was an emergency starter at LT in 2009, despite being a frosh weighing in at 260 lbs. He got his baptism of fire at Oregon and you don’t need to know much more than that to guess how things went. The coaches have always been excited about his potential, but he has had his work cut out for him at the training tables and in the weight room. Last year Reitnour was able to red shirt and it will be interesting to see how he weighs in this Spring. My guess, he will be ready to contribute in the rotation at either tackle spot.
Jake Rodgers - Another youngster with lots of potential who red-shirted last season, Rogers will be a very interesting player to keep an eye on. It would be nice if he could get some live game reps this season and we should start to see this Spring if that will be in the cards for him come Fall.
Dan Spitz – Spitz was suspended last season after a positive drug test and while serving his suspension it was announced he would be moved from DT to OG.
He is a big athletic kid and has always seemed like a player with lots of potential so it will be interesting to see how he approaches the opportunity at his new position. This spring we should get our first look at Spitz the offensive lineman.
Rico Forbes – Most of the 2011 O-line recruits will have to wait until Fall camp to show us what they can do, but Rico Forbes is already enrolled and ready for Spring ball. He is a very nive looking prospect and all indications are that the coaches expect him to contribute in 2011. He comes with good size, already listed at 290 lbs and 6’6″ with good athleticism. If Forbes turns out to be a contributor for us you can credit former Coug wideout Devard Darling who is a family friend and gave an assist on his recruitment.
Sebastian Valenzuela – Seabass has yet to break through, despite all kinds of turmoil and personnel shuffling along the line last year. There were weight concerns with him early on, but the opposite of most of the young players. He was carrying too much weight and they have worked hard to make sure he is carrying the “right kind” of weight. It remains to be seen if he will ever become a contributor and what better time for him to make a statement than this Spring.
Tim Hodgdon – Another player who has never broken through, so it remains to be seen if he is going to have any kind of impact. As detailed above, there have been no shortage of opportunities with all the injuries along the line the last couple years and you have to wonder about any player who has been in the program during that time and not seen the field very much.
Michael Pfeif and Joe Kelata – These two are walk on players, but there is always a chance they could break through. Pfeif saw action in the same 2009 emergency situation that led to Reitnour’s starting at LT, so he has tasted the fire in Pac-10 play. Meanwhile Joe Kelata is a mammoth walk on from New York who, if for no other reason, is intriguing for his size at 6’8″ and over 315 lbs. So that is where we stand on the O-line as I see it and while we have strong favorites at 4 of the 5 spots, this remains one of the most interesting areas to watch this Spring.
Of course, don’t be surprised if everything changes this Summer when big Wendell Taiese shows up in Pullman.
Have a great weekend everyone, and GO COUGS!!!