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Originally published Monday, November 23, 2009 at 9:15 PM

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Bud Withers

Washington State coach Paul Wulff says he's excited about Cougars' future

Coach says talented recruiting classes will start to pay off soon. Restless fans hope he's right.

Seattle Times colleges reporter

You're, oh, say 30 years old. You went to Washington State, and most of what you remember about football is good times. Your memory of the program is Marcus Trufant, Rien Long, Jason David, Erik Coleman, Jason Gesser, Will Derting and Calvin Armstrong.

Your memory is a Rose Bowl in 2002 and a Holiday Bowl victory over Texas the next year.

Today, you can't believe the scores. You can't believe the stats. WSU football is in the dumpster. You're embarrassed for your school. You are certain of two things: Paul Wulff isn't the answer, and you want him gone.

Don't bother me with the numbers, you say. The only number you know is 3-21, Wulff's record entering Saturday's Apple Cup. This is not WSU football. This is not what you know.

What you know is, you've had it.

Wulff realizes you're out there. He just doesn't think much of your opinion.

"The people that don't know the details," he says, "if they knew the details, they wouldn't make the statements they make."

The people that take time to look more deeply into the program, he says, "Every time, they walk away 100 percent excited about the future."

There are some things that can legitimately be questioned about Wulff and his staff: Can it coach? Can it motivate? At times, the Cougars play sort of tentatively, mechanically, as if the ultimate prize, winning, is as foreign to them as Uzbekistan.

Two things are absolute truths, however. The Wulff regime inherited a lousy hand, and the 2009 team has been brutalized by injuries.

On the first Saturday in October, the Cougars weren't going to beat Oregon completely healthy. But they faced the Ducks with three-fourths of their defensive line gone for the season and started their Nos. 6 and 7 guards. When they played Oregon State on Saturday, they had 13 available scholarship players on defense, excluding freshmen redshirting.

The other day, I picked up a 2006 WSU media guide. On the cover were Jason Hill, now with the 49ers; Alex Brink and Mkristo Bruce, who nosed in and out of the NFL as backups or on practice squads; and Scott Davis, a productive college linebacker.

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On the back cover were guys like safety Eric Frampton, an all-Pac-10 pick now in the NFL; tight end Cody Boyd, another player on the margins of the NFL; and a solid linebacker, Steve Dildine.

Who are the Hills, Framptons and Bruces on the 2009 roster? The prevailing belief is that center Kenny Alfred is the only senior with a possible NFL future.

From the 2005-07 recruiting classes — ostensibly the three oldest of five on the '09 roster — 40 players aren't around any longer. Those include a significant dose of junior-college players, some of whom never made it to WSU or didn't cut it academically, resulting in the school taking a big scholarship hit in 2008 for violating NCAA Academic Progress Rate conditions.

Give Wulff credit for not trying to bind the wounds with a wholesale addition of more JC players.

"I've never seen a program move forward and really have success going the JC route," Wulff told me in an interview last week. "It was what was kind of happening here. You may buy an extra win or two or three. But you're not really fixing or building a program that's long-lasting and solid."

Recently, Wulff looked out in the middle of a blowout by Arizona. On the field were fullback Jared Byers, tailback Carl Winston, quarterback Jeff Tuel, flanker Gino Simone and tackle Alex Reitnouer — true freshmen all.

Says Wulff, sighing, "I was like, 'Oh, boy.' "

As wretched are the results of Wulff's first two years, he says he is equally persuaded that the future is bright. WSU redshirted all but the aforementioned freshmen and standout defensive end prospect Travis Long.

Wulff gets excited talking about redshirts like cornerbacks Nolan Washington and Anthony Carpenter; linebackers Darren Markle and Andre Barrington; defensive linemen Justin Clayton and Sekope Kaufusi.

Kaufusi came to WSU rating two stars on the scale of five.

"He's going to be a four- or five-star player," said Wulff. "He's going to be a great player."

WSU in its current state is grievously shy on speed. Playmakers are almost nonexistent.

But with the return of injured players like defensive backs Daniel Simmons and LeAndre Daniels and the addition of the redshirting freshmen, Wulff says, "I'd say our average [40-yard] speed goes from about a 4.85 between our linebackers and secondary to a 4.6."

The Cougars' 2010 recruiting class, now numbering 17, is ranked No. 52 by Scout.com and 62nd by Rivals.com. Wulff says: Don't believe them.

"I feel it's as good as has probably ever been here," he says. "I find it hard to believe there's been any better. It's got great speed, great character, and we're not done with it."

Job one should be to stabilize an offensive line that has been a headache in Wulff's two seasons. In particular, the Cougars must upgrade their tackles. One of those on hand, Canadian Tyson Pencer, Wulff calls "every bit as gifted athletically" as Michael Roos, the Tennessee Titans Pro Bowl left tackle whom Wulff coached at Eastern Washington.

He sees few players whose injuries would prevent them from a complete regimen of winter workouts, compared to last year, when as many as two dozen were limited. The emphasis will be on weightlifting and nutrition, and then next summer, speed. A few linemen, especially on offense, "have to get a little leaner. There's some body fat on a few of our guys."

This season, Wulff, who has received recent expressions of support from athletic director Jim Sterk, seemed to take on a posture of optimism. He talked of talent being stockpiled. He referred to guards Zack Williams and B.J. Guerra as "as good a pair as there is in the Pac-10."

Was he sensing a fan base grown increasingly restless and needing reinforcement? Or is he simply voicing the same resolve that he feels among the redshirting freshmen?

"They're very confident and very driven," he says. "They came in as a package, and it's as close-knit a group as I've ever seen in my entire career. They are hellbent to bring Washington State back."

I asked Wulff what a reasonable expectation should be for next year. He talked about a much more physical team on both sides, and on defense, "a tremendous amount more speed."

He didn't talk about wins.

So much about the Wulff regime is based on faith. The gains of which he speaks are insular, mostly unseen to the public.

For now, WSU fans have little choice but to take his word for it. By next year, they have a right to begin to see some results.

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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