Washington State football coach Paul Wulff has kept the focus on improvement, and players are listening to upbeat message.

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PULLMAN — You know the book on Washington State football the past couple of years: Not a factor. Beyond irrelevant. Epic, sometimes, in its ineptitude.

That didn’t matter on a morning last winter, when it would still be dark for 90 minutes in this college town.

“First winter workout,” said WSU coach Paul Wulff. “The first-year freshmen who work out every day at 5:30 in the morning, every one of them had a red rose. And when they walked into that winter workout, they handed it to the strength coach.”

Bring it on, they seemed to be saying. We’re ready for it.

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Wulff loved it, even as he tries to explain to them the hard road.

“They may be young, and they may be swinging a bigger stick than they can swing right now,” he conceded. “But that’s setting high expectations.”

The painful rebuild continues at WSU. While story lines develop around the Pac-10 — Stanford, turned dominating; Oregon State, on the threshold of Rose Bowls; Washington, perhaps re-emerging — the Cougars labor in anonymity.

You can’t say it’s undeserved.

Generally, what needs to take place for the Cougars this fall is for the season to be more about WSU players than it is a referendum on whether Wulff is right for the job.

“Absolutely,” Wulff said recently in a conversation in his office. “It is about them. It’s not about me.”

An afternoon spent at one of WSU’s spring workouts shows bigger and faster bodies, though not close to a championship level. If the first strides are in morale, then so be it.

“You walk through the halls here, and you’re not going to walk around players that think they’ve only won a few games here the last two years,” says Wulff, who is 3-22. “That’s not the attitude we have.”

Indeed, Wade Jacobson, a junior-college offensive tackle, noticed it when he visited WSU.

“When you see teams that aren’t winning a lot, they start to fight among themselves,” he said. “Coming in here, they weren’t a good team, but no one was fighting.

“That’s what caught my eye.”

Wulff sees advancement in mere toughness, in the response to being pushed.

“We go out and run through a two- or two-and-a-half-hour practice pretty easily,” he said. “It’s the first time since we’ve been here we could truly be productive for two hours. The kids weren’t accustomed to it.

“You can push these kids pretty darn hard and they keep fighting and battling. They’re becoming harder to break.”

He is asked about emerging players. He mentions the quarterbacks, Jeff Tuel (likely to start) and Marshall Lobbestael; the new offensive tackles, Jacobson and David Gonzalez; guard B.J. Guerra; tight end Skyler Stormo (Kamiak High); wideout Jared Karstetter; and running back Chantz Staden, coming off a knee injury.

On defense, Wulff singled out linebackers Andre Barrington (Federal Way), Alex Hoffman-Ellis and Myron Beck (Ingraham); ends Sekope Kaufusi, Travis Long and Kevin Kooyman (Tahoma product who sat out 2009 with a knee injury); corner Daniel Simmons, safety LeAndre Daniels; and punter Reid Forrest.

Brandon Rankin, the highly acclaimed JC defensive lineman, has stepped into a tackle spot, although he’s relatively light at 275 pounds. On one play on this day, Rankin inhaled the guard opposite him and stoned running back Logwone Mitz in his tracks.

Tackle could be thinner than expected in the fall, because both Bernard Wolfgramm and Josh Luapo, two 2009 JC products, have considerable work ahead to be academically eligible.

Injury rehabs will affect two key players. Linebacker Louis Bland, one of the Wulff staff’s early finds, is recovering from microfracture surgery and “we’re hoping he can be 100 percent by the fall,” Wulff said. Running back James Montgomery, coming back from a rare calf injury, should be “100 percent clear by early June.”

Over two years, Wulff wanted his staff to accentuate the positive. If victory was remote, maybe the goal would be to gain 15 first downs, or keep the opposition under 80 yards on kickoff returns.

He preached to his coaches not to be negative, to keep finding teaching moments — “because there are some things inevitable in life,” Wulff said, “and what we went through the last two seasons, whether I came here or not, it was coming.”

Maybe better times are in store. WSU’s younger guys, blithe and bold, are counting on it.

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

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