Injuries raise questions for Cougar defense

PULLMAN -- Deone Bucannon, a true freshman who has impressed on special teams and in spot duty the past two weeks, may be thrust into prime time this weekend because of an injury to senior safety Chima Nwachukwu. Meanwhile, two Cougar defensive tackles joined Nwachukwu on the sidelines Wednesday as the injury bug rears its head.

Nwachukwu suffered a neck injury late in Tuesday's practice after falling hard to the turf on a scout team pass play. He returned to action after missing only a few plays but he was in street clothes Wednesday. "It's going to be an evaluation to see if he can get better and we'll just wait and see," head coach Paul Wulff said. "He strained his neck so that's kind of where he's at."

With Nwachukwu out, Bucannon stepped into the starting line up and took virtually all the reps with the 1s alongside fellow safety Tyree Toomer. Redshirt freshman Casey Locker also saw some reps with the 1s. Meanwhile, cornerback Anthony Carpenter also saw a little bit of action at safety, providing some depth to the position if Nwachukwu remains sidelined.

Bucannon has seen the field in both games this season, but says the anxious feeling in the pit of the stomach is there. However, with the leadership Toomer, he says he'll be ready to rock ‘n roll Saturday in Dallas if his number 10 is called.

"Tyree has been helping me a lot, he's like my mentor," Bucannon said. "Anything I don't understand he gets me in the tape room and I understand everything so it's really cool to have someone to lean back on just in case.

"If coaches need me I'll definitely be ready and be proud to go out there and start for the Cougars," Buchanan said.

Safety wasn't the only place in the secondary feeling pain Wednesday. Junior cornerback Aire Justin, hampered for weeks by a hamstring, re-aggrevated it and sat out practice. Sophomore Terrance Hayward moved into the four deeps, but the playing time with the 1s continues to be owned by starting CBs Nolan Washington and Daniel Simmons.

There is also uncertainty on defense at defensive tackle. Bernard Wolfgramm missed another practice Wednesday with his shoulder ding, while Brandon Rankin saw his day end short with a sprained ankle. Wulff said after practice that Rankin's sprain doesn't appear to be serious.

With Rankin and Wolfgramm both on the sidelines, it opened up the door for understudies Justin Clayton and Anthony Laurenzi to run with the 1s. Rankin's old teammate at Butte College, Steven Hoffart, also saw a handful of reps running with the first team. But Wulff thinks there's a good chance the two starting DT's open the game shoulder to shoulder on the field.

"We're hoping by game time we'll have both those guys (Wolfgramm and Rankin) and my assumption is they will both be feeling a lot better by Saturday," Wulff said.

Meanwhile, at middle linebacker, senior Hallston Higgins continued to run with the 1s and Mike Ledgerwood (stinger) was in a yellow no-contact jersey for the second straight day. Although Ledgerwood's live action has been close to none, Wulff said he thinks the sophomore from Kennewick will be ready to go on Saturday.

As for the action on the field, the first-team defense and first-team offense battled briefly in 11-on-11 drills and the D came out on top. The offense had trouble moving the ball and practice ended on a fourth-down play when QB Jeff Tuel overthrew receiver Marquess Wilson.

It was the last day of full contact drills, and although the pace appeared to be a little more relaxed than previous weeks, Wulff said that's exactly how he wanted it.

"I thought it was solid," Wulff said. "We kind of slowed practice down a little bit to cover some things that we need to work on that are a little bit different from what we've seen the last couple weeks."

It's no secret that SMU features a high-octane offense. So how do the Cougars prepare for the new challenge?

"Well, that's why we had to slow practice down a little bit because they've got some things that are different so we just have to teach as much as we possibly can and try and cover them," Wulff said. "We have to keep working at it and coach all the way until kick-off."

Looking forward to Saturday, Tuel told CF.C that it's imperative that the Cougars take care of the football out of the gates. In each of the last two weeks, Tuel had a direct or co-direct hand in turning the ball over on the Cougars' first offensive play of the day. Tuel said if the team can start out hot, he is confident the momentum will carry.

"I think that'd be huge, if we could get that kind of confidence booster after the first series, who knows where we could go with it because we obviously haven't started out like that and we found a way to battle back last week," Tuel said. "If we can find a way to start out hot and finish like that then I think we're going to have another win under our belt."

Dan Spitz, the defensive tackle who is suspended for the first nine games of the season, worked with the scout team at offensive left tackle Wednesday and the change appears to be permanent. "I just think that he has a bright future to play that position," Wulff said. "I've coached a lot of guys similar to him and they've had great careers. He fits the body type and athleticism."

Spitz, a third-year sophomore from Spokane is 6-6, 279. "With (Spitz) and (John) Fullington and Jake Rodgers and (David) Gonzales and (Wade) Jacobson, we're starting to get 6-5 and 6-7 bodies who should be out there playing," Wulff said. "That's what it takes to build a great offensive line and I think the makings are there for this offensive line to be pretty dang good over the next 3-4 years. I think we're one year away from having a really good offensive line."

  • WSU recently landed in the '11 class another one of those big o-line bodies Wulff was referring to -- 6-6, 292-pounder Rico Forbes out of Navarro College.

  • Freshman QB Connor Halliday has been showing off his arm as of late and the gunslinger was in full throttle Wednesday afternoon. The highlight was airing out a beautiful 45-yard TD strike to fellow Spokanite Austin Ehlo. Halliday, who was named scout team offensive player of the week in preparations for MSU, will redshirt this season but has been very impressive handling the scout team this season.

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