Injury has WSU looking for o-line answers

THE COUGARS SEEMINGLY have used myriad combinations to cobble together a starting lineup on the offensive line during Paul Wulff's tenure. That is partially because of talent issues, but no position has been affected more by injuries in Wulff's three-year tenure at Washington State. A new combination will be required this coming week with the Cougs' starting left tackle now lost for the season.

Wulff and offensive-line coach Steve Morton must determine how to replace junior left tackle David Gonzales, who suffered a season-ending fractured forearm in Saturday's 24-7 loss against Arizona.

One possibility is moving 6-foot-5, 268-pound true freshman John Fullington, who made his first start at right tackle against the Wildcats, to Gonzales' position.

Left tackle generally is regarded as the most important position on the line because it protects a right-handed quarterback's blind side. Teams also typically put their best pass rusher against the left tackle for that reason.

Wulff said during his Sunday teleconference that he is comfortable with Fullington in that position.

"I trust John," he said. "He's a heck of a young player. I'm not sure that's what we're going to do, but it's clearly an option we're looking at."

There are other possibilities. Wulff said senior right tackle Micah Hannam, who made 43 consecutive starts before a concussion held him out against Arizona, is expected back this week. Wulff said Hannam could stay at right tackle with Fullington moving over to the other side. Or Hannam might move to guard, which he has played before, with Fullington staying at right tackle and junior Wade Jacobson moving to left tackle. Jacobson, who has started most of the season at left guard, replaced Gonzales against Arizona, but Wulff feels he is better suited on the interior offensive line.

If Jacobson, a third-team All-American at Gavilan College in California, moves to tackle, junior Andrew Roxas could emerge as a replacement at left guard.

"He played the second half and he did some good things in there," Wulff said of Roxas. "I thought he played better in this game than he has all year."

That might sound like a lot of possibilities as the Cougars prepare to face their third consecutive ranked opponent, No. 12 Stanford, at 2 p.m. Saturday (TV: Fox College Sports) in Palo Alto, Calif. But Wulff, who added that a tight end might be moved to the offensive line for depth purposes, said it is prudent.

"We've had an uncanny number of injuries at this position," he said. "We have to come up with two or three different plans in case there's an injury."

Sophomore Tyson Pencer (pneumonia) remains out. WSU also had a pair of former contributors on the offensive line -- Steven Ayers and Brian Danaher -- retire before the season. Two redshirt freshmen, Tim Hodgdon and Sebastian Valenzuela, also are injured.

THE INJURY SITUATION seems to be becoming more problematic throughout the roster, but Wulff does not feel that is a byproduct of increased hitting during practices.

"We're contemplating on how we're going to approach this week's practice," he said. "I think (the injuries stem from) consecutive weeks of playing physical teams. We may cut back on our physical amount of contact."

In addition to Hannam, Wulff expects senior defensive end Casey Hamlett (chest) to return this week. Others who might return include sophomore defensive tackle Steven Hoffart (mononucleosis), junior linebacker Mike Ledgerwood (concussion), sophomore tight end Andrei Lintz (neck) and senior running back Chantz Staden. Wulff said senior punter Reid Forrest, who subluxed his left shoulder when he fumbled a snap against the Wildcats, also is expected to play.

Senior safety Chima Nwachukwu (hamstring), who has missed two games, is questionable for the Stanford game. WSU also lost true freshman cornerback Damante Horton, who suffered a sprained medial-collateral ligament and partially torn anterior-cruciate ligament in his left knee against Arizona, according to Wulff. He said Horton should be able to rehabilitate the injury, which is expected to sideline him four to six weeks. Wulff initially feared that season-ending surgery might be required.

"It was a positive MRI," he said. "It just allows him to get right back into that weight room and get bigger and stronger."

Without Horton, Wulff said sophomore Terrance Hayward and junior Aire Justin will play behind starters Daniel Simmons and Nolan Washington.

Depth at linebacker also is an issue. Ledgerwood's potential return could solve some of those issues, while true freshman C.J. Mizell might even start this week following his one-game suspension for a violation of team rules. Wulff said he expects redshirt freshman Sekope Kaufusi, who had eight tackles in his first start against the Wildcats, to play on both the weak side and in the middle. He said true freshman Eric Oertel is beginning to see more time on the strong side to give senior Myron Beck rest.

WHILE WULFF SAID no one is content to lose, he said it is a natural step for a program that spent most of his first two years getting blown out. WSU's average Pac-10 loss this year has been by 21.25 points, which is down from 2009 (27.9) and 2008 (47.4).

"You've got to start closing the gaps from where you were," he said. "That has to happen before you win."

Jeff Sagarin, who has done college-football rankings since 1985, this week listed the Cougars' schedule as the nation's third most difficult. Wulff said he and Arizona coach Mike Stoops discussed the difficulties of competing in the Pac-10. Wulff said Stoops told him that there were two or three conference games he felt his team could win when he took over a downtrodden Wildcats program in 2004. That might not be the case anymore.

"It's a hell of a schedule and a hell of a run," Wulff said. "We've got to play a hell of a football game to win in this league."

That did not occur against Arizona. While the defense allowed a season-low 352 yards of total offense, WSU struggled when it held possession.

"Arizona probably had the best defensive line we've faced," Wulff said. "But things we could control ourselves, we didn't execute very well."

NOTABLE NOTES:
  • Justin's numbers looked generic as a return man, averaging 4.5 yards on four punt returns and 18.3 hashes on the same number of kicks. But Wulff said he was pleased with Justin's performance.

    "He caught things with confidence and he was aggressive," he said. "For the first time this year, particularly on punts, we feel like we have a guy who can break something."

  • Wulff said WSU will be even more aggressive with trick plays as his team matures in future seasons. The Cougars were successful on an onside kick to open the Arizona game, but lost a fumble in the second half when senior running back James Montgomery attempted to throw the ball back to sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel.

    "We want to be aggressive," Wulff said. "We want to take what's there. We've always been very aggressive in how we approach games."


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