The CENTER of attention

PULLMAN -- Sunday afternoon marked the first practice in full gear for the 2003 Cougars and the progress report was decidedly mixed. Foremost is that it's quite apparent center, a position nailed down beautifully by <b>Tyler Hunt</b> from 2000-02, is less secure this season.

Keola Loo, a JC transfer who is challenging senior Mike Shelford for the starting role, is having a tough time making clean snaps to the QB. And sophomore Nick Mihlhauser, who acquitted himself well as a backup guard last year as true freshman, was having a devil of a time today trying to slow down big Tai Tupai.

Shelford, a master of technique, is doing fine, but the fact is that the scrappy walk-on who won the starting nod coming out of spring practices is low on real-game experience.

That lack of experience is not an issue on defense, though. The D has dominated these practices just the way it ruled over spring ball.

Bill Doba says that's typical of early workouts, and he's confident his club -- featuring offensive standouts like Jermaine Green, Devard Darling and a bevy of hosses -- won't have to be carried by the stop corps. "That's the way our team was in ‘94," said Doba, referring to the fabled Palouse Posse defense that led the Cougars to an 8-4 record. "The offense struggled a lot and it caused a lot of dissension within the team."

Key to the offense coming along this season will be the development of the quarterbacks and receivers. And that development, Doba cautioned, hinges to a significant degree on people staying healthy at those positions.

"The depth at receiver is a concern to me," he said. "The ones we have are good, but we've got to keep them healthy."

Adds senior grab-master Scott Lunde, "It's like if one guy goes down we really can't have one more go down because it will take away from the team. We don't have 10 healthy receivers so it is going to be tough. Levy (Mike Levenseller) works us to the bone (to stay healthy during the season)."

On Sunday, the offense started out slow but picked it up toward the end of the day. Matt Kegel and Chris Hurd completed five consecutive passes during one stretch, a consistency that has been rare so far. Lunde caught a bundle of passes as did Chris Jordan, who took one Kegel pass to the house.

"I practiced with (Josh) Swogger all last year so I obviously feel most comfortable with him," Jordan said. "But me and (starter) Kegel are really starting to click now."

"They're starting to get (where they need to be)," QB coach Timm Rosenbach said of his three top signal callers. "I might overload them the next few days. We need to try and limit the mental mistakes."

Are they on track for the August 30 opener?

"It's hard to judge progression," he said. "You have an idea of where they may be at but all that can change when you get in the game. It's best just to try and not think about it too much. Just be disciplined and stick to what you know."

But back to the defense. Aside from Tupai, who looked impressive teaching Mihlhauser some of the finer points of trench warfare, the unit on Sunday featured highlight plays from DB Jeremy Bohannon, who stripped running back Chris Bruhn of the ball, and senior corner Jason David made a flashy play to break up a pass from Kegel to Jonathan Smith.

• Freshman defensive end Reyshawn Bobo was injured during practice. Bobo was seen on the ground for several minutes holding his knee. Trainers came over to attend to him while the team moved drills up the field. No status report at press time. Meanwhile, fellow true freshman d-lineman Jon Conlin, injured the other day, is slated for an MRI on his knee. He could be out for the season.

• Now that receivers Chris Jordan and Sammy Moore have changed their numbers to 2 and 3 respectively, Scott Lunde seems to be the odd man out. With Devard Darling wearing No. 1, Lunde appears way out of synch with his No. 35. "I've been trying to get them to let me change this ugly number for years now," said the redshirt senior. Given his work last season, when he nabbed 30 passes for 364 yards despite missing four games due to injury, you'd think he could snag a single-digit jersey.

• Monday will be the first day of two-a-days. The first practice will be at 9 a.m., like usual, the second will be at 7:30 p.m.

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