SPRING BALL DAY 13: Defense shines

PULLMAN—With the upcoming Saturday scrimmage putting the cap on the Cougars' 2011 spring, time is running out for players to make their early claims for starting jobs on both sides of the ball. Among the players who excelled on Tuesday, a Cougar linebacker. And the defense looked sharp throughout.

But the offense struggled early to find a rhythm.

The Cougs cracked pads at Rogers Field for what was likely their last full contact practice of the camp. Thursday's session will most likely be no contact in advance of the spring scrimmage Saturday in Spokane.

"I think we're executing at a better clip and I like that," Paul Wulff said. "It gets to a point where you get tired playing against each other but I think our guys are coming out and focusing on the things we can control."

The early Tuesday execution for the offense however was not at the same level it's been for most of camp and with the 1s lined up against the 1s for 11-on-11's, the offense sputtered. The first four plays resulted in QB Jeff Tuel tossing three incompletions including normally sure-handed WR Gino Simone dropping a pass. On the other snap, C Andrew Roxas snapped a ball straight into the dirt, forcing Tuel to pick up and run with it.

"I think we did just very average," left guard John Fullington said. "I feel like we still have a lot to work on to be really good in the long run. "

After a rough first series, however, Tuel was able to get into a groove and started to consistently find his receivers downfield. WR Marquess Wilson continued to build on a very productive spring and was often the go-to-guy for Tuel on Tuesday. The sophomore-to-be hauled in several catches of 20-plus yards.

BUT OVERALL, THE top unit on the day was the defense -- plenty of stops, and in particular, the secondary had a stretch of nice plays late during practice. Over four snaps, safeties Tyree Toomer and Deone Bucannon each had a pass deflection. What was impressive was that both breakups came on diving swats.

Another DB that played well again on Tuesday was corner Aire Justin. A report by a third party blog on Monday said Justin is likely to be suspended for the 2011 season because of a failed NCAA drug test but the redshirt senior continues to practice and spent most of his day running with the 1s. (See here for more.)

During one set of 11-on-11s, Justin and WR Jared Karstetter were matched against one another and Justin stuck to the 6-4 Karstetter like glue, preventing him from hauling in a reception during that series and forcing Tuel looking in another direction to make a play.

BUT STANDING OUT THE most on defense Tuesday was Mike Ledgerwood. The MLB had his strongest performance of the spring, getting to the ball quickly and getting in the grills of both Coug quarterbacks and running backs.

"Just playing ball," Ledgerwood shrugged. "Bring some intensity and actually keep that intensity up. We were with the first teamers out there so we just had to play ball."

Ledgerwood provided the play of the day while the first team offense and defense were lined up against one another. Tuel dropped back and appeared to have plenty of time to get off a pass. Karstetter ran a quick route and was wide open with nothing but daylight ahead of him. Had Tuel connected with his receiver, it had big play written all over it and could have sparked the offense.

Instead Ledgerwood made a great read on the ball and jumped high in the air to deflect the pass. The ball soared into the air, Ledgerwood took 2-3 quick steps back and made a remarkable diving catch to secure the interception.

Ledgerwood has been seeing plenty of action with the 1s this spring but he also switches in and out with fellow MLB C.J. Mizell, who became last year's starter in the middle as a true freshman.

Mizell has recently been seeing most of his action with the 2s but has returned to see more action with the 1s the last two practices. Both players are working hard to earn that starting position, and Ledgerwood said the matchup with him and Mizell brings out the best in the both of them.

"The competition makes us all better," Ledgerwood said. "..Even at the WIL and SAM there's plenty of competition, and we just have to get the best guys out there."

As for injuries this spring, WR Blair Bomber appears the only significant one. Bomber injured his knee last week in practice and could miss the entire 2011 season, though Wulff said more testing remains before that's definitive. Fellow WR Isiah Barton suffered a sprained ankle during last Saturday's scrimmage and was at practice in a boot. RB Carl Winston also suffered an ankle injury earlier this spring, and was on crutches while watching Tuesday's practice.

"We're a little nicked up right now," Wulff said. "We have a lot of players not participating but we're still able to function and do all of our drills -- and that's something we haven't been able to do in years past. We've got some good players helping us out right now."

NOTABLE NOTES:
  • Defensive lineman Xavier Cooper spent most of his time on Tuesday running with the 2s -- at defensive tackle. Cooper, who has seen most of his time running with the 1s at DE this spring, used his explosiveness to get through the 2s on the offensive line, and added a pass deflection of QB Marshall Lobbestael midway through practice.

  • In discussing the format for Saturday's spring game, Wulff said the plan is for four 15-minute quarters with the clock running. Wulff added that the only time the clock could stop would be after someone scores.

  • Wulff was also asked how he felt about the spring game being in Spokane. " I'm excited to be up there, I think it's great," Wulff said. "It's good to get our players out on the road and get out of the comfort level of playing right here. Until we go on the road next year at San Diego State, we really won't have an opportunity to go out and do that. This will be a really good thing and we need to utilize the travel and utilize playing on a foreign area to help us for our first game."

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