Former Cougar Steve Morton is showing his passion for both football and his alma mater as he tries to fix Washington State's offensive line.
PULLMAN — On Steve Morton’s office wall is a photo display summarizing the best of 35 years coaching offensive linemen: five Pac-10 winners of the Morris Trophy.
There’s Dan Lynch of WSU (1984); Lincoln Kennedy (1992), Bob Sapp (1996) and Olin Kreutz (1997) of Washington; and Kwame Harris of Stanford (2002). Nobody has coached more Morris winners than Morton.
And in a corner of a large dry-erase board is another window into Steve Morton: four sets of digits.
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“Eleven spring-practice days left,” Morton explained one day last week. “And then, 115 days to fall camp, 141 days to the Oklahoma State game. And 233 days to the Apple Cup.
“I got that from Don James.”
If there can be a home for a guy who has worked under 11 different head coaches, Morton may be there. He’s a WSU alum whom the game has now brought full-circle after a career of college coaching, mostly on the West Coast.
“First off,” he said, “I’m a Cougar. I’ve always been one. I’m more excited to be here right now than when I came here to play for the first time. This is really something personal to my wife and me.”
Nostalgia is an unmistakable element of Morton’s return, but urgency is much more the story line. At 56, he has been called upon to fix a WSU line that has allowed 96 sacks in head coach Paul Wulff’s two seasons and rushed for a league-worst 70.7 yards per game in 2009.
Wulff fired Morton’s predecessor, Harold Etheridge, after last season, one in which WSU misfired on offense through a succession of injuries up front.
“He’s done everything; he’s been in every kind of system,” said Wulff, whose first two years as a WSU player in the mid-1980s were under Morton’s tutelage. “There’s a certain level of comfort for me. When I was coaching prior to here, I was coaching with the offensive line in some capacity.
“This is the first time, truly, I try not to look at the position. It’s great.”
With WSU’s spring game coming Saturday evening, Morton has been doing what he always does — tinkering. At Washington, in a seven-year stint in the 1990s, he plugged players into different positions and built versatility.
Last week, for example, he had Micah Hannam, an incumbent starter at right tackle, playing guard.
“I welcome the challenge,” said Hannam. “I’ve been playing right tackle for the last eight years.”
Only time will tell whether Morton can create a functional Pac-10-caliber line, but it’s apparent he’ll have more choices than Etheridge. The Cougars recruited a pair of junior-college tackles, Wade Jacobson and David Gonzalez, who are in school now, and the only significant loss among the interior players is standout center Kenny Alfred.
The guards figure to be Zack Williams and B.J. Guerra, but for the first time in the Wulff regime, there will be a semblance of competition up front. That should help build a unit that could help the team fortunes across the board — in maintaining ball control, protecting quarterbacks and keeping the heat off the defense.
“One of the first things Coach Morton told us was, we need to be the straw that stirs the drink,” Hannam said. “We’re the guys that get everything going. If we don’t stir the drink, nothing’s going to happen.”
Jacobson, who came from Gavilan College, near Morton’s last port of call in San Jose, Calif., seems to have taken that message to heart. He has been the undisputed leader in practice scuffles this spring.
“What’s football without knocking heads around, you know?” Jacobson said after a recent practice. “My goal is to hit somebody on every play. If I don’t, I get mad about it.
“I’m going to be the dirtiest player in the Pac-10. That’s my goal.”
Jacobson visited WSU, Arizona, San Diego State, Nevada and San Jose State. Ironically, Morton was one of the chief reasons Jacobson was considering San Jose State before head coach Dick Tomey retired.
“I got lucky,” Jacobson says.
Meanwhile, Morton frets that the Cougars have miles to go before they’re game-ready.
“We have so much to do,” he says. “It looks good one play, and three plays in a row, it looks like it’s from another planet.”
Wulff believes the genius of Morton is his ability to express in simple terms complicated assignments to the football unit requiring the most cohesion.
Asked what he would most like to ingrain, Morton says, “Passion to play. Listen, when in doubt, fire out and hit somebody. Just don’t stand there and have paralysis due to analysis.
“If you’re hitting the wrong man, we’ll fix it. Have passion. And make it personal, that my man does not hit the ball. If we do that play after play, we’re going to be OK.”
If somehow that passion doesn’t come to fruition, it won’t be for lack of it in the line coach who has come back to where it all started.
“I drive down Greek Row when I go back home and I smile,” says Morton. “I love the place. This is really and truly a pure, pure gift. It’s a treasure, and I’m going to treat it that way.”
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org
|Steve Morton, WSU’s new offensive line coach, isn’t so new. He has worked for 11 different head coaches in a 35-year career:|
|Dick Tomey||S. Jose St.||’05-09|
|*Also at Iowa State|