Out of spring practices, Lobbestael must wait to compete

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

If you want to know when Washington State's 2008 season truly went rear-end-over-tea-kettle, look no further than when redshirt freshman quarterback Marshall Lobbestael's knee tore apart early in the fourth quarter against Oregon State.

At that point, things went from bad to hopeless. And just a bit ridiculous.

With torn anterior-cruciate and medial-collateral ligaments in his left knee, Lobbestael became the third Cougars quarterback to suffer a significant injury, following Gary Rogers (out for season) and Kevin Lopina (three games).

If you remember, Washington State even earned national attention when it was forced to hold open tryouts to find a scout-team quarterback.

What you might not remember is the promise Lobbestael flashed during his brief tenure as the starter.

It didn't start great. He threw two passes in mop-up duty against California, and one was intercepted. But instead of wilting, he came back to complete 9 of 12 for 149 yards -- his first two passes going for touchdowns -- in the Cougars 48-9 victory over Portland State.

That earned him Pac-10 offensive player of the week honors, and it wasn't inconceivable to be cautiously optimistic that the then-1-3 Cougars might be finding some rhythm.

That didn't happen, of course, and after Lobbestael went down the Cougars were shut out in three of their next four games.

Still, Lobbestael's numbers were by far the best among the quarterbacks. He threw four touchdown passes with four interceptions in five games while his chief competition for the starting job in 2009, Lopina, a rising senior, threw 11 interceptions and no touchdowns in nine games.

Problem is Lobbestael won't be able to compete for the starting job during spring practices because he's still rehabilitating his knee.

"I should be able to throw and do some drop-backs [during spring practices] -- I'm not really sure yet," he said. "Right now I'm trying to focus on what's going on with my rehab, so I don't want to think too much about spring and get ahead of myself. But I should be able to throw."

He's off crutches and walks around campus without a brace ("It sometimes gets a little stiff when it gets cold but I'm walking pretty good so far," he said), but his recovery was pegged at nine months, which means he'll have to wait until fall practices to make his claim for the starting job.

"I'm trying to watch a lot of film, and during spring I'll take a lot of mental reps," he said. "Hopefully I won't fall too far behind. But there will be a little bit of catching up to speed when I come back in the fall."

In the fall, touted incoming freshman Jeff Tuel will join the fray, with sophomore J.T. Levenseller also a possibility.

But Lobbestael is considered the frontrunner.

Whoever wins the job, however, will have to significantly upgrade the position 2009 if the Cougars are going to improve their 2-11 finish. Washington State ranked 115th in the nation in passing efficiency last season -- a year after Alex Brink threw for 3,818 yards and 26 touchdowns.

"A lot of stuff [has to get better]," he said. "I think the first thing is we've got to totally change our attitude. Our entire team, the way we practice and the way we play obviously, but also off the field, the way we eat and the way we train."

If there's a starting point -- a place to plant the seeds of hope -- it's that the Cougars know they walked away with one shining moment in 2008: a 16-13, double-overtime victory over Washington in the Apple Cup.

As a product of Oak Harbor, Wash., Lobbestael knows that means something.

"When people ask about the 2008 season we can say, 'We didn't do that good but at least we beat the Huskies in the Apple Cup' That's something we'll always have on them, to hang over their heads a little bit," he said.

The larger question is whether Lobbestael and the Cougars can get more in 2009.