5 things Cougs need to fine-tune this week

PULLMAN - The season opener against Auburn is 12 days away and there has been considerable improvement this fall camp. On the flip side, there are just as certainly areas in need of improvement. Here are five things the Cougs will need to fine tune this week in order to enhance their chances of coming out on top and claiming victory on Aug. 31.

1. Tempo, Tempo, Tempo:
Auburn is looking to go at breakneck speed on offense. The Coug defense has more depth and that means more fresh legs to rotate out on the gridiron. But will the Cougs still fall prey to Auburn's strategy in the fourth quarter and down the stretch? Most certainly they can win the conditioning battle and whether they will or not depends on a lot on this week. The primary focus the last few practices has been keeping the tempo up on both sides of the ball. The defense especially needs to keep building on keeping the tempo up as they head to Jordan-Hare Stadium. There is no question they are in shape, but are they in shape enough for playing on the road at Auburn in expected heat and humidity and how will rotation figure in? Linebacker coach Ken Wilson: "If you can go hard for two plays, then that is all you are going to play. If you can go hard for a seven-play drive, you can play the whole drive."

2. Consistency from the OL:
Yes, they are improved, they have more depth and they have more experience that last year. But can the Cougar o-line consistently provide protection for (expected starter) junior QB Connor Halliday? Will they establish some sort of running game? Throughout camp, the OL has been impressive on certain days, not-nearly-as-much the next. Consistency for four quarters will be crucial for the Cougs against Auburn and on into the season. If they come prepared, finish their assignments and focus on the common goal at hand the rest will take care of itself. It all starts up front on offense and this is a key week to nail down those little things that aren't so little. If the OL creates a good pocket, that leads to better QB decisions and gives the RBs a far greater chance to make some hay on the ground and to find the end zone, when inside the red zone. But there's work to be done here, and this week is huge up front on the WSU o-line.

3. Who's going to be the punt returner?
With so many speedy and agile options for special team coach Eric Russell to use, who will be "the guy" in 2013? Freshman WR Robert Lewis looks to be the front-runner for the job. There has been a rotation here, with Lewis seeing time with sophomore WR Brett Bartolone and senior RB Leon Brooks. But Lewis is out on front right now from this chair, and he's been on both kickoff and punt returns teams, (with freshman CB Alex Jackson and junior WR Rickey Galvin also vying for kickoff return duties.) With his blazing speed, he could be a dynamic returner for the Cougs in '13. Question is, will Russell ultimately go with the athleticism and youth of Lewis, or look to veterans like Bartolone and Brooks? This week should go a long ways towards deciding that.

4. At corner, is it Horton or Brown?
Senior CB Damante Horton returned to practice yesterday and was a full participant. But Coug players and coaches have been high on the play of true freshman CB Daquawn Brown. Which of the two corners will take the other spot alongside senior CB Nolan Washington, who has been a fixture this fall camp on the other island? Brown's play has not gone unnoticed, but a veteran like Horton has to be a factor too. Horton returned to the No. 1 defense after being limited the past few days. Brown shined in his place. The decision defensive coordinator Mike Breske has is a difficult one and it will be interesting, and perhaps telling, to see who gets more of the reps with the No. 1 defense throughout the week.

5. Who will be MIK, WIL and SAM LBs?
Redshirt sophomore LB Darryl Monroe will most certainly be at MIK barring any major setbacks. Not only has he performed sharply, but he's also assumed a leadership role. As detailed by CF.C, Wilson has had senior LB Eric Oertel at SAM mostly since the Cougs got back to Pullman. Before that, Oertel had not been working with the No. 1s in Lewiston. Cyrus Coen, who has spent a large amount of time as the No. 1 SAM this fall camp, has recently been spending the bulk of his time with the 2s. Wilson has said he's been trying various players to see who does what in certain run and pass situations. But who will start at Auburn? This week should tell us if Wilson goes back to Coen or sticks with Oertel. And it's not out of the question that Wilson is thinking 50-50 here. Meanwhile, senior LB Justin Sagote has been stellar with the No. 1s at WIL this camp. And sophomore LB Tana Pritchard has had a good run too at both WIL and SAM. But Pritchard has been with the No. 2s of late and it looks like Sagote is the guy at the WIL. Then again, it sure as heck looked like Oertel was a clear backup until this past week. Bottom line: this practice week at linebacker will be educational to see what Wilson does -- and not just because of possible starting assignments, but to also lend grist to how much he might rotate guys in at Auburn.

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