Coach Paul Wulff, a former WSU center, says Alfred is the kind of player and leader the Cougars need.
PULLMAN — The excesses and shortfalls of the Bill Doba regime at Washington State have been well-chronicled: The academics-related attrition, the brushes with the cops, the systematic ruination of a football program that not so long ago won 30 games in three years.
In the interest of equal time, we give you Kenny Alfred, a representative of what Doba was talking about when he said months after his exit, “There’s still a hell of a lot of good kids in the program.”
As the Cougars continue a long plod back toward respectability, their roster has a worthy standard in Alfred, their veteran center. Let’s just say he’s one of a select few who could play for USC.
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Off the field, he’s a guy who reads voraciously, writes to release pent-up emotion, keeps an eye out to build a collection of old vinyl records, and never utters an untoward word about a football program he chose with undoubtedly higher times in mind.
Paul Wulff, the second-year coach, looks at Alfred with a hint of wonder, for good reason: Twenty years ago, Wulff was Alfred, the center on WSU’s yardage-gulping, late-1980s teams of Dennis Erickson and Mike Price.
On any given play, Wulff might be led to ponder if, half a life ago, he would have handled it the same way: Would he have made the same line call to reset a blocking scheme? Would he have overcome the defensive tackle and been able to reach-block the linebacker?
Wulff has no problem deferring to Alfred, a fifth-year senior from Gig Harbor.
“Of all my years of coaching, he’s at the top of the charts in terms of the complete package you would want,” Wulff says. “I’d like to think who he is and what he represents is what we’re working toward in modeling our whole program.”
Wulff warbles on about Alfred’s toughness, his commitment to the program, his willingness to help the coaches coach.
In a recent practice, WSU guard Zack Williams came up second-best in a one-on-one drill against a defensive lineman. As Williams beat himself up, there was Alfred prompting Williams and teaching technique: “Zack, watch my feet! Watch my feet!”
“He’s got unbelievable passion for what he does,” Wulff says. “He’s not afraid to confront. That’s how teams grow, when you have that kind of leadership.”
Alfred is the unquestioned linchpin of a line whose progress is paramount to WSU’s improvement. Last year, the offense went three-and-out without a first down, or turned it over before it could get that far, a stunning 73 times. Advancement there would not only give the offense a chance, it would ease pressure on the defense.
“I see no reason why we won’t be much improved there,” Wulff says.
Five years ago, Alfred had scholarship offers from WSU, Washington, Oregon State and Northwestern. He was close to picking Northwestern, but decided to sleep on it and the next day, it came up Cougars. He had a brother, Matt, playing just up the road at Eastern Washington — for Wulff, Kenny’s future coach.
“I’ve always thought of Washington State as being more tough, more gritty, more fun, more rugged, more isolated — just things that fit my character,” Alfred says.
After redshirting in 2005, he started eight games the next year and hasn’t stopped. He has 32 career starts.
That includes 13 a year ago when he played through a painful hip condition that required surgery in the offseason to repair cartilage and remove bone fragments.
“You could tell, he just wasn’t moving as well as he was,” says offensive line coach Harold Etheridge, referring to last year. “Now he looks like a fresher, new guy.”
Alfred feels like it, too. He treats every practice like a gift.
“I’m loving every second of it,” he says. “Having my body be virtually pain-free, every day, is just awesome. I’ve never enjoyed practice as much as I do now.”
Through the physical and psychic pain of the past, Alfred sometimes retreated to his house and put his feelings on paper in poetry or prose.
“I don’t have any cable in my house,” he says. “I’ve got a record player. I just kind of hang out and listen to that. It gets me in the mood. But some days, I’ll just grab a pen and paper, no matter where I am.
“After a few games last season, I’d sort of just write stream-of-consciousness poems and get it all out of my head. I like to write about masculinity in athletics and how it affects me as a person.”
Recently, Alfred was spending his free time plowing through Stephen King’s seven-novel Dark Tower series. He also can be found at swap meets, looking for additions to a collection of old vinyl records that includes items like vintage Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and an original Beatles white album.
“It kind of gives me a personal connection to the stuff my parents listened to,” he says. “It’s a way to identify with them.”
Alfred, 6 feet 2 and 300 pounds, ought to have a shot at the NFL. If that doesn’t take, he’ll have an English degree.
“I figure as long as I can write, as long as I can speak and convey a message well,” he says, “I’ll be able to find somewhere to work myself in.”
His coach has his own message, one that should resonate with Alfred and longtime followers of WSU football. Says Wulff, “He’s a lot better player than I ever was.”
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org