More changes could come to WSU's defense

THERE MIGHT BE more defensive changes to come. Washington State coach Paul Wulff said during his Sunday teleconference that he continues to contemplate changes on that side of the ball.

Wulff said some of that stems from the Cougars' youth. During Saturday's 43-23 loss against No. 3 Oregon, WSU started six freshmen and sophomores on defense and another -- redshirt freshman Sekope Kaufusi -- played extensively at weakside linebacker.

Wulff said with the freshmen in particular, it takes some time to evaluate their talent. Perhaps the most notable change last week came when Kaufusi was moved from defensive end to linebacker. Now, Wulff hopes to find someone who can spell senior Myron Beck at strongside linebacker, and he might "tinker with the secondary position a bit."

That is WSU's youngest unit -- no one who started against the Ducks was an upperclassman. Senior safety Chima Nwachukwu (hamstring) did not play against Oregon and Wulff said he remains questionable for Saturday's 4:30 p.m. game against Arizona at Martin Stadium.

AT LINEBACKER, JUNIOR Mike Ledgerwood has struggled to return to health since he suffered a stinger Sept. 11 against Montana State. Ledgerwood did not play against Oregon, and while Wulff did not discount him returning this week, he also said he would prefer to keep him out until he makes a complete recovery.

"I don't want it to nag him all year long," Wulff said.

True freshman C.J. Mizell took his place at middle linebacker and made a team-high 12 tackles in his first collegiate start. Wulff was impressed with the tackling ability both Mizell and Kaufusi displayed against the Ducks.

"When they hit them, they take them down," he said.

That has been a frequent problem for WSU. But after Wulff counted 32 missed tackles in a 50-16 loss Sept. 25 against USC, he has seen dramatic improvement in that area. He said the Cougars only missed nine tackles against Oregon.

He said that statistic was impressive because the Ducks, who entered the game with a nation-best average of 56.6 points per game, use their athleticism and deception on offense to make opponents miss.

Live tackling has been an emphasis during practice in recent weeks, but Wulff said he might scale it back depending on the health of several players.

SPECIAL TEAMS HAS seen significant improvement this year, particularly in kickoff coverage. Wulff said the Cougars now rank first among Football Bowl Subdivision teams in that statistic, where they allow an average of about 15 yards per return.

But there were a few issues against the Ducks, most notably Cliff Harris' 67-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter that put Oregon ahead for good. Wulff said senior Reid Forrest's punt, which was a low line drive, was not good but "we should have been in position to cover that."

WSU also had a botched extra-point snap after an 11-yard touchdown pass from sophomore Jeff Tuel to senior Daniel Blackledge in the third quarter. Forrest was stopped short of the end zone on his run.

"It was a low snap and it was kind of behind Reid," said Wulff, adding that there should have been two receivers available regardless of which direction Forrest rolled out. "He couldn't get a good enough grasp on that."

He also wants to see improvement from the kickoff-return team. Wulff said the blocking generally has been good on that unit, but the Cougars need more production from their returners. WSU ranks 66th in that statistic among 120 FBS teams with an average return of 21.64 yards.

"We've got to be a little more dynamic in the return game," Wulff said. "I think Tyrone Justin could step up with his speed."

AFTER REVIEWING GAME tape, Wulff said he felt the offense missed some opportunities, but he also credited some of that to the Ducks' veteran defense.

While Wulff said there were mistakes along the offensive line, he noted that junior-college transfers David Gonzalez and Wade Jacobson still are developing as starters on the left side of the line. Also, true freshman John Fullington played the majority of the game after senior Micah Hannam (concussion) left during the first half. Wulff said he is not sure if Hannam, who has started 43 consecutive games at right tackle, will play against the Wildcats.

Despite those issues, he credited the offense for its nine-minute time-of-possession edge. He said that helped Ohio State, which had 72 snaps compared to 54 for the Ducks, win the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. Oregon was limited to 64 snaps against the Cougars, and with senior defensive end Casey Hamlett (bruised chest) out, starters Kevin Kooyman and Travis Long played every down.

"We hit on a lot of things we needed to win that game," Wulff said.

In other injury news, true freshman wide receiver Marquess Wilson suffered a bruised shoulder against the Ducks, but Wulff does not believe he suffered any structural damage.

NOTABLE NOTES:

  • True freshman Kalafitoni Pole did not play against Oregon and essentially remains on red alert. Wulff said he prefers to redshirt Pole, who was expected to play this season before he suffered a shin injury just before the year, but that depends on the defensive line's depth. He said Hamlett is questionable to play against Arizona.

    "We don't want to get so thin that we have no one to play," Wulff said.

  • Another true freshman who was expected to play, Kristoff Williams (turf toe), will redshirt. Wulff said a recent MRI showed a problem with Williams' toe.

  • Wulff recently stopped wearing a headset during games and plans to continue the practice. He said offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy, defensive coordinators Chris Ball and Jody Sears and special-teams coach Dave Ungerer stand near him, which grants Wulff quick access to one.

    "I feel more engaged with players on the sideline and on the field," he said. "I think they need as many coaches connected with them on and off the field (as possible)."

  • WSU hosted several recruits against Oregon, and while the Cougars lost, Wulff said his team's performance left a positive impression on the visitors.

    "I think they love the players and the atmosphere," he said. "I think they realize that we have a bunch of young players that are bound to do good things."

  • The Cougars targeted wide receivers in the class they signed in February. Blair Bomber, Robert Jiles (failed to qualify), Bobby Ratliff, Williams and Wilson were added from the high-school ranks, while Isiah Barton signed out of junior college. This year, Wulff said it is important to add depth at every position, but both the offensive and defensive lines will be emphasized. He projects a mixture of high school and junior-college signings at those positions. WSU is expected to sign 25 players in February.


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