Darin Lovat hasn't had much time to work with the Cougars, but the team is noticeably larger this season

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PULLMAN — The guy most pivotal to Washington State’s football outlook this fall might not be Paul Wulff, the coach, or Marshall Lobbestael, a quarterback coming off knee surgery, or transfer running back James Montgomery.

Darin Lovat’s work station is around the building from the WSU football offices, but the assignment is no less important. Back here, Lovat sets tempo, builds torsos and uplifts psyches.

He’s WSU’s football head strength coach, and hardly anybody has stepped into a more gaping chasm than Lovat did a year ago.

You know it’s bad when, an hour before Stanford plays WSU last November, you look out at warmups and think Stanford brought the varsity and the Cougars the JVs.

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In his first year, Wulff was outspoken in stressing that WSU was grossly overmatched in size and strength. That was evidenced in the horrific scores the Cougars put up almost weekly in a 2-11 season.

It would be unfair to lay the deficit at the feet of the former strength coach, Rob Oviatt. There evolved some odd, entrenched institutional policies — like athletes not getting weighed regularly — that took hold. Oviatt, meanwhile, was spread among several sports, football included.

After a practice here Friday, running backs Dwight Tardy and Marcus Richmond said Oviatt might have trusted players too much.

“A lot of guys would slack,” Tardy said. ” ‘Oh, Coach O. isn’t watching me, so I’m going to go ahead and slack.’ “

Oviatt resigned a year ago for family reasons, and Wulff knew exactly where to turn for his football link to a reorganized strength-and-conditioning staff. Lovat, 34, had been at Boston College for a year, but before that, was Wulff’s strength guy at Eastern Washington.

“He was the big reason why we started winning championships at Eastern Washington,” Wulff says. “He got guys bigger, stronger and tougher.”

In January, Lovat met with a team that had given up 58 points or more six times, looked it in the eye and asked, “Do you think we’re where we need to be physically?” Nary a hand went up.

Lovat had only a winter and a summer to work with them, in two chunks of eight weeks each. You can’t grow miracles, but it’s apparent the Cougars have made advances in strength and bulk.

“He cracked the whip and put mass on them,” says center Kenny Alfred. “When guys saw results, everybody loved him.”

Lovat is understated about it, saying, “We just need to keep plugging. We’re not where we need to be. We’ve made a lot of improvement.”

Wulff and Lovat like a regimen with a lot of Olympic lifts, things like power cleans and military presses, with an emphasis on development of the core. Plus, in accord with the rigors of football, dynamic resistance. Linemen might have to hustle 100-pound sandbags from one station to another.

Some of that was done every summer weekday at the stark hour of 5:45 a.m., when people like Tardy, Richmond, Brandon Jones and Andy Mattingly met the bell regularly. Every 90 minutes, a new wave of players arrived.

“If you want to be a leader, you want to be in that 5:45 group,” Tardy said. “It set the tone for the rest of the day. It kind of gave you prestige.”

One thing they noticed: Lovat always seemed to know, down to the rep, when they were carrying out their assignment. He doesn’t have the screaming gene inherited by a lot of strength coaches, but he’s happy to get in your face if the effort lapses.

Lovat, nephew of one-time Seahawks offensive-line coach Tom Lovat, sets the bar high. Part of his protocol asks for occasional maximum lifts.

And when a Cougar comes up short?

“It’s shame,” Tardy said. “You feel it if you fail him. It’s depressing. It’s touching. It’s emotional.”

So the Cougars have begun to make a connection in the weight room. Next stop: the football field.

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

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