A quick glance at the Washington State depth chart yields something it hasn't over the previous three years. A "maybe."
Paul Wulff probably needs a bowl game to coach into his fifth season, which means he needs to exceed in 2011 the five total wins he's produced in the previous three. But that stark thought ends with that surprising "maybe."
Wulff talks about how winning teams need talent, experience, leadership and chemistry, and -- for the first time -- he sees it with his Cougars.
"As those things start to grow and age -- like a fine wine -- your team is going to start winning football games," he said. "I think this team is going to win football games and I think we can compete for a bowl game, without question... I think we are going to surprise a lot of people."
Where's the hope for a team that went 2-10 in 2010? Consider:
Junior quarterback Jeff Tuel heads into his third year as a starter with one of the more experienced and talented receiving units in the Pac-12.
While the offense officially must replace four starters, there's experience up and down the depth chart.
Washington State has had one All-Pac-10 player over the past three years (center Kenny Alfred, second team in 2009). They have a number of candidates in 2011: Tuel, wide receiver Marquess Wilson, guard B.J. Guerra, tackle John Fullington, defensive end Travis Long and strong safety Deone "D-I" Bucannon.
The big question for the Cougars is the trenches: Both groups of linemen struggled last year. WSU couldn't run or stop the run, and the offensive line yielded 51 sacks, second most in the nation. If the Cougars are merely adequate up front, they have a good shot at making a run at six wins and getting to a bowl game.
The Cougars hold their first spring practice this afternoon. Here are some notes from Wulff. (Note: If your favorite backup from last fall is not listed, it doesn't mean he's not in the mix.)
Out or limited: RB Arthur Burns (wrist), DE Travis Long (shoulder), DE Jordan Pu'u Robinson (knee), OT Dan Spitz (shoulder), FB Jared Byers (knee), LB Louis Bland (suspended).
Position changes: Not many. Spitz has been moved from the defensive line to the offensive line. Fullington, who started at left tackle as a true freshman, has moved to right tackle because David Gonzalez, who broke his arm at midseason last year, is back at LT. Wulff said Guerra or Gonzalez could see some action at center, the biggest position of competition on offense. Brandon Rankin, who played DT last year, could see time outside at defensive end.
Redshirt freshmen to watch: WR Kristoff Williams (though he's nursing a turf toe), WR Bobby Ratliff, QB Connor Halliday, RB Rickey Galvin and Toni Pole. Further, early entrants -- LB Darryl Monroe and receivers Henry Eaddy and Isiah Myers -- as well as grayshirt DE Xavier Cooper could play their way into the mix as true freshmen.
Quarterback: Halliday could push senior Marshall Lobbestael for the backup job.
Running back: Senior Logwone Mitz is No. 1 and Carl Winston is No. 2 on the spring depth chart, but watch out for Galvin, who broke his arm on his first play of the opener versus Oklahoma State. He's undersized but can make folks miss, which the Cougars need at the position. James Montgomery, last year's starter, is not expected to apply for an injury hardship waiver that would allow him to come back for a sixth year.
Offensive line: Center is up for grabs between junior Andrew Roxas and JC transfer Taylor Meighen. The other four spots seem mostly set. On Fullington, Wulff said: "[He's] one of the best young tackles in the country. He's got special upside... He's a high draft pick guy."
Defensive line: Long and Robinson, the Cougars top two DEs, are out. JC transfer Ian Knight has been generated some buzz; he's listed No. 1 at one end. Anthony Laurenzi steps in for the departed Bernard Wolfgramm at DT. Steven Hoffart also is worth watching at DT. Pole only redshirted last year because he got hurt. He's solidly in the mix inside, as is Justin Clayton, who was hurt last year, too.
Linebacker: Sekope Kaufusi steps in at the "sam" strongside lineabcker for Myron Beck, though Eric Oertel could make a push. Wulff called Kaufusi, "a hell of a talent." Getting Bland back -- he's been riddled by injuries as well as off-field issues -- would help next fall because he's a speedy playmaker. Wulff said of talented by sometimes difficult MLB C.J. Mizell: "He's definitely made strides... He's not where he needs to be or can be, but he's clearly growing and that's all we can ask."
Secondary: All four starters are back from 2010, but there figures to be plenty of competition. Daniel Simmons, who's struggled with injuries, may challenge at cornerback, where Nolan Washington and Aire Justin are presently No. 1 on the depth chart.
Specialists: Andrew Furney is back at kicker, while Dan Wagner will get first crack at replacing Reid Forrest.