New coach Doba has first turn in the spotlight

Updated: August 7, 2003, 2:24 AM ET

PULLMAN, Wash. -- The moment occurred midway through the first football practice of the preseason, when receiver Steve Mortimer dived his full 6-foot-3 length to catch a pass.

"I love this game!" Mortimer cried as he jumped to his feet Wednesday.

Times are good for the Cougars, who are coming off a Rose Bowl appearance and two consecutive 10-win seasons.

New head Coach Bill Doba, new starting quarterback Matt Kegel and a lot of returning starters practiced for nearly two hours as they prepared for the season opener Aug. 30 against Idaho at Seahawks Stadium in Seattle.

It was Doba's first time in the spotlight on the annual Media Day. He was elevated from defensive coordinator when former coach Mike Price left for Alabama last winter.

Doba immediately showed a soft side for reporters, shooing a bevy of them away from the space between two football fields during passing drills.

"Guys, I don't want you to get hurt," Doba said, "and more important I don't want my players to get hurt."

When practice was over, he turned to face a battery of television cameras and reporters.

"Holy Christ, a firing squad!" he joked.

But the conversation soon turned serious, as befits a coach who is preparing a team to play at Notre Dame on Sept. 6 and Colorado on Sept. 13.

The Cougars need to replace first-round draft pick Marcus Trufant at cornerback, Outland Trophy winner Rien Long on offensive line and Jason Gesser, the winningest quarterback in team history.

"Those guys only come along once in a while," Doba said.

But 49 letter-winners return, including seven defensive starters and five on offense -- a sharp contrast from the depleted squad that followed the 1997 Rose Bowl team, he noted.

"As I stood in front of them last night, I thought, `That's a good-looking bunch of kids," Doba said. "Unless we screw up there shouldn't be that big a drop-off."

The team chose senior safety Erik Coleman as defensive captain and Kegel as offensive captain this year.

Coleman was honorable mention All-Pac-10 last season, but Kegel has seen little playing time in his first three seasons. And he had a memorable meltdown in last year's Apple Cup that helped Washington come back for a victory.

But the 6-foot-5, 235-pound senior loyally served as backup to Gesser and has shown flashes of brilliance.

"He's good," Doba said. "He's taken the bull by the horns and we have a lot of confidence in Matt."

Doba acknowledged his own limitations regarding the offense, saying he was still trying to learn the technical terminology after decades as a defensive specialist. He said he is coming to appreciate the job done by offensive coordinator Mike Levenseller.

"I get to watch Levy work," Doba said. "Levy is a great coach. I was surprised."

The biggest position battles of the preseason are shaping up at middle linebacker, between Don Jackson and Aaron Wagner, and at center.

Doba has stayed in touch with Price, who was fired for allegedly partying too hard before coaching a single game at Alabama. He said Price appears to be recovering from the incident.

"I've been kidding him about it," Doba said.

Notes: Among players on the injured list are Robert Franklin, Brian Boyer, Ira Davis and Thomas Ostrander...Washington State was ranked in the middle of the Others receiving votes section of the USA Today/ESPN Preseason Top 25 ... Doba said he wasn't unhappy with the preseason prediction that WSU would finish 7th in the Pac-10. "Last time we were picked 7th we went to the Rose Bowl."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index