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Checkin' on the Pac: Washington State

With Pac-10 media day now in the books, it's time to start looking toward training camp and the actual 2010 season, which will likely be one of the more wide-open races in the recent history of the conference. We certainly know a lot of the ins-and-outs of the USC roster, but how much do we know about our Pac-10 counterparts? To shore up any gaps in our knowledge, we'll be running a 9-part interview series with many of the best team-specific Pac-10 blogs on the web. For part one, here's a Q&A with Jeff Nusser of SB Nation's CougCenter for some info on the Washington State Cougars:

Q: Since Alex Brink graduated following the 2007 season, it seems as if Washington State has struggled to find a consistent starter at the quarterback position. Going into the 2010 season, what are the odds that this gets figured out? In other words, can Jeff Tuel start 12 games?

A: You're right that we've struggled to find a consistent starter, but it's at least a little difficult to try and figure out just where to lay the blame on that one. Every guy who's tried to replace Brink under center has spent more time running for his life the last two years than actually throwing passes thanks to the putrid state of the offensive line. A broken neck, a broken back, reconstructive knee surgery ... all that happened to our quarterbacks in 2008. The major injuries weren't quite as bad in 2009, but that mostly was due to our quarterbacks' collective ability to either throw the ball after 1.8 seconds or turtle up as the defenders descended.

Which begged the question: Were they bad because the offensive line was bad, or were they bad because they were bad?

We should get a little better answer this year. A big part of the problem the last two years with the offensive line has been youth. Some schools -- such as USC -- can sort of get away with that. WSU recruits don't show up physically mature, and when young linemen are pressed into action, the physicality of the conference catches up with them and they get injured. (We had a 250-pound freshman start at left tackle against Oregon last year. I wish I was making that up.) Another year of maturity, another year in the weight room, plus a couple of JC transfers for reinforcements, means they should be better.

So can Tuel start 12 games? I think so. His backup is mediocre at best, so the only thing that could derail him would be another injury -- he missed the last two games with a relatively minor knee injury -- or such poor performance that Paul Wulff is forced to bench him. He looked pretty dang good for a true freshman last year, so I think the latter is unlikely, and he's just mobile enough that if the line is improved, the former becomes less of an issue.

Q: Whoever is under center for Wazzu is going to be surrounded by some talented skill players. Cal transfer RB James Montgomery appears healthy this year after being out for nearly all of the 2009 season, and the top two receivers (Jared Karstetter and Gino Simone) are back as well. Comparative to 2008 and 2009, how "explosive" can these guys be?

A: Let's not jump the gun on Montgomery. He suffered a serious leg injury last year -- one that was actually life threatening. (Again, I wish I was making this up.) In order to quell expectations, doctors said right away that he might never play again. However, his rehab has gone better than expected, and he's expected to be back. The problem, though, is that we have no idea what he'll be able to do, as he has yet to take the field since the injury.

At his best, he's a powerful back with some shiftiness and great acceleration -- far and away the most talented player on the team. But I think most people are realistic in expecting that he won't be 100 percent of what he was. What percentage he will be ... we just don't know. But it's likely even 90 percent of that will still be the better than everyone else.

As for the receivers, nobody's going to use the word explosive. Karstetter is a big target with decent speed who is best as a red zone weapon. (Assuming we ever get that close to the end zone.) Simone is a shifty, sure-handed slot target, but nobody's going to confuse him with Wes Welker. Any "explosion" is going to have to come from some talented, but obviously inexperienced, newcomers. They reputedly possess the ability, but I'll believe it when I see it.

Basically, with all these question marks, the offense might still be another year away from marked improvement.

Q: The defense has to have been rather disappointing in recent years. A year ago, they gave up on average 38.5 points per game. However, they do return 7 starters, and have quite a few seniors scattered throughout the lineup this year. You're anticipating at least some improvement, right?

A: Defense is the side of the ball where we're looking for significant improvement. There's a lot of experience returning, but that's not what has us optimistic. Realizing the project in front of him, Wulff stashed some of the most talented members of the 2009 recruiting class on redshirts last year, even though they probably could have helped. Those guys, along with some of the newcomers, possess something most of the returning players don't: SPEED.

There were times the last two years where opponents were catching balls and there wasn't even a defender on the screen. That figures to change this year. Will they be great? No. But they might be good enough to keep WSU in some games.

Q: People often forget that while Washington State declined in terms of wins last season, they did improve in many regards. For one, the turnover margin went from -25 in 2008 to -7 in 2009, and the games were generally more competitive as well (just compare the games against USC in 2008 and 2009). Was this reflective of a continuing trend, where the Cougs get back to keeping for bowl games, or are you less optimistic?

A: I think there's little doubt the program is heading in the right direction. This team is better off than it was two years ago. Serious talk of a bowl game is still at least a year away, and whether this program can get back to 30 wins in three years is a big question mark. But Wulff is going about it the right way -- he's not taking any shortcuts. He's bringing in kids who are of good character, generally solid academically, have some raw skills, and are developing. I believe this program can get back to being in bowl games regularly under Wulff.

Q: In 2008, both Washington and Washington State finished toward the bottom half of the conference, and the Cougs won the Apple Cup as well. However, Washington hired Steve Sarkisian, upset USC in 2009, and finished 5-7 overall after going winless in '08. How aggravating/frustrating/annoying/insert adjective here is it that the Huskies appear to be the media darling this offseason, especially with all the Jake Locker Heisman hype, and are now apparently "on the rise?"

A: It probably annoys me more than others because I live in the Seattle area. But it's understandable. After all, even in that 0-12 season, it was pretty clear that there was some talent over there that was just being horribly mismanaged and poorly coached. (Which, incidentally, made the Apple Cup win that season that much more satisfying.) So, it was hardly surprising that they surged a bit last year.

Look, we're under no illusions that UW isn't a program with a lot more resources than WSU, and with a great quarterback like Locker, they really ought to be better at this point. I just wish I didn't have to listen to the morons around me talk about the Huskies and the Rose Bowl in the same breath. (Yes, they're really doing that.)

Q: It doesn't seem too long ago that Jason Gesser and the Cougs were beating USC on the field and earning Rose Bowl births as well, but a lot has changed since then. Mike Price and Bill Doba are gone, and with Paul Wulff, Washington State seems to be a lock to finish last in the conference. What are the chances that this team surprises people this year and avoids another last place finish?

A: Well, common sense would say that the chances are slim. They were so far behind everyone else the last two years, it's hard to imagine them making up that big of a gap to the tune of two or three wins.

But there are a lot of unknown quantities with this team, and even Wulff -- who has been notoriously frank in his assessments of his teams the last two years -- has said that six wins is a possibility. Personally, I don't think that's even remotely a possibility. But when the typically close-to-the-vest head coach starts floating that sort of stuff and tells people the team really will be a lot better and is going to surprise some people, I'll listen.