Battle in the middle

PULLMAN -- The race is on and the controversy underway. Who will be the No. 1 guy when the season opens in Seattle just 18 days from now? After a week of workouts, the three candidates look virtually inseparable. Oh, by the way, none of the names involved are Kegel, Hurd or Swogger.

Try Wagner, Jackson, and Hall instead. And while not a controversey in the sense of a Casper vs. Turner vs. Rypien affair, it is nonetheless a veritable battle royale.

There aren't a whole lot of starting positions up for grabs on the 2003 Cougars, so the contest at middle linebacker is gaining a bunch of attention these days, with Aaron Wagner, Don Jackson and Brian Hall each staking a claim to the spot held down last season by Mawuli Davis (now graduated) and Kevin Sperry (career-ending knee injury).

With full contact now on the practice slate, matters should start to clear up a bit in coming days as the real hitting starts.

Jackson, a senior and one-time JC All-American, would seem -- at least on paper -- to be the favorite. He played in 12 games a year ago, starting one, and posting 16 total tackles. He was hampered much of the season with a high ankle sprain, neutralizing one his best attributes: speed. Now fully healthy, and tipping the scales at a muscular 235, Bill Doba and Robb Akey say they're eager to see Jackson's fleet streak on display.

So far, he hasn't disappointed, delivering some of the most ferocious hits of August.

Still, it seems, all eyes are on Wagner.

Back from a two-year Mormon mission, many have been curious how he would fit in after being gone and whether he'd show any signs of rust on the field. By all accounts, he's just fine, thank you.

He looks more stout and just as agile as he did when he starred in the 2001 spring game before packing his bags to spread the good word in Sin City (yep, his mission too him to Las Vegas).

"Coach Burtnett (linebacker coach Leon) took us in and said he's starting us all out at zero," Wagner said of competition. "I'm a competitive guy so I think I'll be taking it."

"Wags is kind of the wild-eyed guy," Akey said. "He plays hard on every play. Donnie has great speed and burst, but Wags is also very physical. When he was here two years ago that was one thing that really impressed us."

And Hall, a second-year freshman, served notice this past spring that he may be young but he's a gamer.

While in Las Vegas, Wagner did his best to stay in shape, waking up two hours early at 5 a.m. to work out. But with so much of the Lord's work to be done, he was left with little other time for conditioning. So when he got back to Pullman he was a little too meaty for his position.

But months of dedicated training have shed 15 pounds and put him the fray for a starting spot.

He said he is trying to get a natural feel for the pass drop and plans to stick the tight ends harder on the crossing patterns after watching the way teammates Hall and Jackson stuck the tight ends.

"I had been playing it safe," Wagner said.

Ideally Akey would like to have one clear starter with a reliable backup to spell whoever the starter may be.

"Some positions you need to keep rotating guys to keep them fresh," Akey said. "But middle linebacker is a position we like guys to get into a rhythm by playing a lot of the game. I'd be inclined to say that one of the three will eventually separate themselves from the others."

While Wagner was in Vegas he taught the Gospel, knocking on doors and holding services. He also helped baptize people. All the while, his Cougars were see some light of their own. After three tough years following the 1997 championship season, the Cougars were born again --- finishing in the nation's top 10 in both 2001 and 2002, compiling a Pac-10-best 20-5 record along the way.

Needless to say, Wagner was itching to play for a national contender when he got back.

"I always knew we had the potential to be great," Wagner said. "We had a great recruiting class. I was really happy to see them do so well while I was gone, I wish I could have been there."

And there was no doubt in Wagner's mind that he would return to WSU even if other schools came knocking. "I'm a Coug through and through," Wagner said. "The coaches were really loyal to me the years I was gone."

Since he has been back Wagner has noticed more than just new faces on the team since 2000. He also said the team has a whole new attitude to go along with its 20-5 record the past two seasons.

"There are a lot less ‘me' players and more ‘team' players now," he said.

After spending two years on a mission trip Wagner has also gone through a personal change. Two years ago his top priorities were the two "f" words; football and females. Now Wagner said he's more mature and focused on the important things in life.

After all, "I'm all grown up now," Wagner said. "I'm 21-years old."

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