Sometimes football players come from unexpected places.
Washington State's Andrei Lintz grew up frolicking outside his mom's office: The Catherine Palace, the Rococo summer residence of the tsars just outside of St. Petersburg -- yes, the Russian one, not the one in Florida.
"I remember walking around there. That was my place to hang out," Lintz said. "It was a cool backyard compared to Pullman, where you've got hills and five minutes out of town and you're in the middle of nowhere."
Lintz moved to the U.S. when he was 6. He grew up playing soccer and didn't play football until his freshman year of high school. But he did enough at Meridian High in Bellingham, Wash., to earn a scholarship to Washington State, where he was part of former coach Paul Wulff's first recruiting class.
The next four years weren't much fun. Though the Cougars steadily, if slowly, improved, Wulff was fired last winter after going 9-40 overall and 4-32 in conference play.
"It was heartbreaking from a personal standpoint -- these were the coaches who believed in you, trusted in you," Lintz said. "It is a business and that's the ultimate reality. If you don't win at the Division I level, you're going to get fired."
Then athletic director Bill Moos tapped former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach as Wulff's replacement, which generated plenty of positive buzz in Pullman.
Unless you played tight end, as Lintz did. His initial thought was he might disappear as a fifth-year senior in a spread offense. Heck, Leach didn't even have a tight ends coach.
"I had no idea what was in store for me," Lintz said. "I was pretty worried. I watched [Texas Tech] highlights and they very rarely had a tight end on the field. It was all four-wides and the receivers were small, quick guys."
Ah, but sometimes football players come from unexpected places. Or 6-foot-5, 252-pound tight ends become inside receivers.
Some might see the move as a gimmick. Clearly talented sophomore tight end Aaron Dunn wasn't impressed with his prospects. He quickly transferred after Leach's hire.
But Lintz was a revelation this spring, arguably the Cougs' most consistent receiver. In the final two scrimmages, he caught 12 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Leach's "Air Raid" offense neglect a guy with a tight end's body? Well, last year as the No. 1 tight end, Lintz made just seven catches for 96 yards and one touchdown -- all season.
If you are looking for a breakout player next fall, a guy who could give opposing defenses fits and make them think they are trying to cover the second-coming of former Stanford tight end -- and potential first-round NFL draft pick -- Coby Fleener, look no further than Lintz. He's not as fast as Fleener -- not nearly so -- but he's plenty athletic. And he's capable of playing a jack-of-all-trades role -- receiver, tight end and H-back.
In other words, he's another guy who can help force a defense to do what Leach wants to force it to do: account for the entire field.
But will that be enough to get the Cougs to the postseason for the first time since 2003? Lintz said what has distinguished Leach's first spring, which ends with Saturday's spring game, was a sense of urgency.
"It's almost cutthroat," he said. "It's all go, go, go, now, now, now. We can't be the welcome mat of the Pac-12 anymore."
Lintz likely meant "doormat," but his point is clear. He might hail from Russia, but he's fully aware that the Cougars head into 2012 with an eight-year bowl drought, longest in the Pac-12.