Derting, Yarno's hosses lead way

PULLMAN -- Anyone near the Cougar practice field this morning could hear a sweet harmony that has not been heard on the Palouse since April: The tenor of helmets and pads colliding. <b>Will Derting</b> led the hit parade on defense, while the offensive line, pushed hard by position coach <b>George Yarno</b>, offered up some stirring run blocking to round out the chorus.

Today was the first day any contact and pads were allowed. Players wore pads from the waist up, with full contact and pads starting on Sunday. The pads allowed coaches and players alike to reassess the progress of the team. The report: Right on track for the August 30 opener against Idaho in Seattle.

Alas, though, the hitting didn't come without a cost. There were a series of what appeared to be small dings, and freshman defensive lineman Jon Conlin was seen being driven off the field in an aid car, with a bag of ice on his knee. No word at press time as to his status.

"If anything, we might have been a little too aggressive," Doba said about the first contact day. "We have a few banged up thighs and little injuries to take care of."

"It's a different feel," starting quarterback Matt Kegel added. "You get to hit a little more. It's a good feeling --- it gets you prepared a little more for the real thing."

Performance wise, the day was an up and down affair for the Cougars but certainly entertaining with the contact.

Besides the contact, there were other wrinkles in today's workouts, as Doba had the lads working on a lot of new plays. That cerebral interlude took some of the energy, in ample supply Wednesday and Thursday, off of today's practice.

"We're just throwing a lot of new things at them. It usually takes a practice or two for them to get the routine down," Doba explained.

HOSSES LOOKING GOOD

The offensive line appears more solid and capable than it did in the spring, although they must fine tune their mechanics. Offensive line coach Yarno continues to ride the group hard. At one point today he ribbed left tackle Calvin Armstrong, an All-American candidate, by telling him he had been reading too many of his press clips.

The O-line worked hard at run blocking, which they did a better job of than they did with the pass.

"We just have to go out there and be a lot more physical," Armstrong said. Both Armstrong and Doba felt the biggest hindrance to the line right now is the communication.

"I think they will be really good," Doba gushed. "(Center, Mike) Shelford has been doing a real good job hanging in there. I'm also pleased with the development of (junior college transfer) Keola Loo and (sophomore, Nick) Mihlhauser can jump in there anytime as well. They just need to play together more so they can get the calls right. They sure are athletic though. It's probably the most athletic looking line I have seen since I've been here. But you never rate potential over performance."

The line did have its share of goof ups that could have been avoided. There were several times Yarno rode them for allowing the defense to blitz and sack the quarterbacks. Also, center Loo and quarterback Josh Swogger twice had a miscommunication working out of the shotgun, both times resulted in unforced fumbles. On a positive note though, each time Yarno would rip into one of them, the mistakes were quickly corrected. This was the most noticeable difference from the spring, where Yarno at times would count the amount of times a player would make the same mistake. Bottom line: The players are responding positively to their new coach.

ALL HAIL THE DEFENSE

One aspect of practice that stayed the same from the last contact practice in the spring is the defense owned the day.

"They came out to play," Doba said about the defense he previously was in charge of. "It's usually that way early on though."

Linebacker Derting and (healthy) strong safety Virgil Williams each made impressive plays that were not the result of offensive mistakes. Derting made two standout plays, one was a sack of starting quarterback Matt Kegel the other was a strip of wide receiver Jevon Miller. Miller caught a low pass and the fleet-footed Derting was immediately on top of him and stripped the ball out of his hands before Miller could stand up completely.

Williams broke up a beautifully executed pass to Trandon Harvey from Kegel. Just when it looked as if Harvey had burned Williams, Kegel locked in on his target and threw a bullet to Harvey, but Williams wasted no time recovering as he flew over and broke the pass up.

Freshman middle linebacker Brian Hall of Walla Walla also nabbed an interception when Swogger telegraphed a pass.

SIZING UP THE QBs

Each quarterback had a handful of highlights and lowlights but the common thread seems to be that they are working on a lot more than just accuracy in hitting their target, this seems to have taken a back seat to foot work, reading defenses and finding their third and fourth options to pass to. "We're trying to get him (Matt) not to take so much time trying to find that fourth option," quarterbacks coach Timm Rosenbach said. "We're also trying to get him to be more active on his feet. He's a big guy but he still needs to use his feet."

To his credit, Kegel has looked more fluid this fall and the footwork has been a noticeable addition to his game. "My performance today was a little shaky," Kegel said. "They threw some new defenses in there, but I've got to have a better practice than this."

NOTABLE NOTES:

• Rosenbach indicated that the team will try to use all three quarterbacks this season, with Kegel obviously getting the lion's share of snaps, but Hurd and Swogger each getting significant -- and equal -- amounts of time off the bench.
• Calvin Armstrong suffered a sprained knee during the spring. Cougfan reported this week that it was a broken leg.
• The word on returning linebacker Aaron Wagner is that he has not lost a step since leaving for two years to go on his Mormon mission. Wagner has fit into the defense nicely and will be a needed and welcomed addition to a linebacking corps that was suspect at times last year. He'll contend with Don Jackson and Brian Hall for starting spot in the middle.
• Rookies and newcomers have not only been beginning practice half an hour earlier than the veterans, they also stick around an extra half an hour to get caught up. One complaint about a new NCAA rule that requires all players to report to practice on the same day is that rookies and newcomers won't be able to get the singled out attention they would get in past years. The extra practice time will help heal some of that hopefully.

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