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Originally published Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 3:21 PM

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Bud Withers

Cougars should be patient with freshman quarterback Jeff Tuel

WSU coach Paul Wulff might get pressure from fans to burn Tuel's redshirt season. Wulff should resist that idea — later, he'll be glad he did.

Seattle Times colleges reporter

So the college football season is fresh and new and vibrant. Everybody gets a clean slate, even the Huskies and Cougars, who were 2-23 last year, the sum total of their Division I wins against each other.

It's like an Internet dating service. It's all about the anticipation. The unknown is always a lot more titillating than the known, especially when the known gradually morphs into a 1-4 record with a negative-9 turnover ratio.

Which brings us to the Cougars. I'm guessing I can forecast with a high degree of certainty a prominent subplot to the 2009 season.

It's about everybody's favorite football subject: Quarterbacks.

Saturday in Pullman against Stanford, WSU will start senior Kevin Lopina, who will try to put behind him the psychic wreckage of having thrown for no touchdowns and 11 interceptions last year.

Third-year sophomore Marshall Lobbestael of Oak Harbor is supposed to play, too. He's coming off a knee injury, thanks to WSU's pass protection in 2008, which approximated New Orleans' levees against Katrina.

And then there's Jeff Tuel.

Fire up the message boards and dial the talk shows.

The WSU coaches love Tuel as a prospect. He throws a crisp ball, he's rangy (6 feet 3, 207 pounds) and he's got good feet. In one footwork drill I saw in WSU's fall camp, Tuel's feet seemed to move with the speed of a jackhammer, the kind of asset that helps a quarterback avoid the rush and buy time in the pocket.

Tuel was under the radar at Clovis West High outside Fresno, because he didn't start until he was a senior, understudying to Beau Sweeney, who's now at California. He committed to the Cougars last August.

Paul Wulff and his staff want to redshirt Tuel. No question, we're getting ahead of ourselves, but here's the probable scenario: WSU, unanimous, no-questions-asked pick for 10th in the Pac-10, struggles. And even if the quarterback doesn't falter, well, you know how people are about fixating on the next one on the depth chart.

And, given today's gimme-it-now-if-not-sooner remorselessness, Wulff might find himself under a lot of pressure to play Tuel.

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Don't.

Backing up here, it's possible WSU will be all right at quarterback with, say, Lobbestael, who was considered to have promise before last year's audition, which can hardly be considered conclusive.

If that doesn't happen, the Cougars should still take the long view and keep Tuel on the sidelines, barring unforeseen circumstances.

Ah, you say, but USC is about to send out true freshman Matt Barkley to keep the dynasty current.

I'd contend that two better examples exist at UCLA and Stanford. In 2008, Kevin Craft almost drove Rick Neuheisel to the legal profession, throwing for seven touchdowns and 20 interceptions. But UCLA — with the counsel of offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who should know quarterbacks — kept Kevin Prince on the bench, and now he starts.

"I just didn't think adding more youth to that position was the way to go," Neuheisel recalled this week. "A year later, I'm comfortable with that position."

Stanford did the same thing with Andrew Luck, although it was on the brink of a bowl berth for the first time since 2001.

As much as anything, this debate has to do with Wulff, and whether he will, or ought to, feel alarmed enough about his second-year regime to turn to Tuel if the wolves are howling.

But by now, it should be apparent that Wulff inherited a program belching blue smoke and it isn't going to be turned around by a new set of sparkplugs. This was more than a fixer-upper.

WSU fans should expect a more competitive team this year, but Wulff can't feel as though he's compromising a long-term plan by playing Tuel early.

Let the program grow before putting it on the kid. Someday, it'll all be worth it.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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About Bud Withers

Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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