WSU DAY 15: NT returns, special teams focus

PULLMAN - The Cougs got out of the sun Friday, practicing at 8 p.m. for the first time this fall -- and one of Wazzu's nose tackles returned to the field. Meanwhile, at least five true freshmen appear to be making serious runs at early playing time. Friday was a no-pads, helmets-only practice, and special teams were the focus. Oh, and junior offensive guard Niu Sale is the new punt returner.

Okay, so Niu Sale won't be the Cougars punt returner this fall, but the junior college transfer did make quite an impression and the end of practice.

The night ended with offensive and defensive linemen facing off in a punt return challenge. The representatives from each squad had to make the catch on the punt, or take responsibility for your entire unit's up-downs.

Sale and freshman Destiny Vaeao were in the first group; both made the catch. Senior Wade Jacobson and junior Matthew Bock led the second group. Again, both representatives made the catch. Junior Ioane Gauta and junior John Fullington led the third group. To everyone's amazement, both made the catch.

That made it an unprecedented six punts caught in a row by the Cougar hogmollies.

Bring on junior Matt Goetz and sophomore Toni Pole.

The night was beginning to drag on, so coaches required the two big men to lie on their stomachs and find the ball mid-punt. Goetz bobbled his catch, but it was a catch nonetheless. Pole suffered a different fate. The defensive lineman on his first day back from injury had the punt hit his chest and fall to the ground.

The entire the defense would follow the same fate, dropping to the ground for five up-downs.

The offense hooted and hollered in victory, sprinting through the defenders as they endured their punishment.

MOST OF THE linemen were, while successful, less than graceful in their fielding of the punts, but Sale's technique and route to the ball caught Mike Leach's eye.

"That punt that Niu Sale caught, it didn't even make a noise," Leach said. "There were some guys that made some catches but it'd hit their chest and go ‘boom' or hit their hands and go ‘bop, bop, bop' and then they'd catch it. Sale's didn't even make a noise."

Leach jokingly hinted that some of the return men might have a new coach come Sunday when practice resumes.

"Sale might be able to give a few lessons to some of our punt returners on how to catch that thing," Leach said.

It was a slower, brief practice Friday night, with the offense and defense playing sparingly.

NOTE: Friday's session was the last open practice for the media and public. The Cougs are off on Saturday, back in action on Sunday. With the green light from Leach, CF.C will be heading to a high perch to observe the happenings on Rogers Field below.

The season opener against BYU is on August 30, in Provo, Utah.

--Sophomore cornerback Brandon Golden did not participate.
--Sophomore wide receiver Isiah Myers also sat out.
--Junior linebacker Eric Oertel did not participate.
--Senior wideout Gino Simone was out as well.
--Freshman nose tackle Xavier Cooper did not participate.

--Again, sophomore nose tackle Toni Pole returned to fully participate.

Newcomers making a splash:
This fall camp, arguably more than in years past, true freshman are making the case that they may be ready to play Pac-12 caliber football right now. This is a testament to the kind of talent Mike Leach and former head coach Paul Wulff brought in the last year.

Safety Taylor Taliulu, wide receivers Gabe Marks and Brett Bartolone, and cornerbacks Alex Jackson and Ray Ford all look as though they could possibly make a significant impact this season.

When asked what their expectations are for themselves this season, each made it very clear what they want.

"It's a personal goal of mine to start," said Taliulu. "If they need me to start, I'll step up and I hope to help lead this team to a PAC-12 championship."

Bartolone shared Taliulu's conviction, saying that he isn't here to redshirt.

"I'd love to start," Bartolone said. "My main goal is to help lead this team to a Pac-12 championship however I can."

Marks was right on board with his teammates, adding that he hopes to see the field early.

"I want to contribute," Marks said. "It's whatever the coaches tell me."

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