Youngsters, backs stand out

PULLMAN -- What started as another defensive walloping of the offense during practice Friday turned into a series of what could have been SportsCenter's top 10 plays the O, with running backs Jermaine Green, Chris Bruhn and Jonathan Smith showing Flash Gordan-like speed, while freshman QB Alex Brink -- subbing for injured Chris Hurd -- added some notches to his young belt.

Green and Bruhn each ripped off 25-yard gainers, Green weaving his way through defenders and Bruhn swinging wide right before bursting up field. Smith showed some flash, sing his modest size to weave under defenders. On one play he broke left, then cut back up the middle, leaving his defender — nearly twice his size — behind for a 10-yard gain.

"I felt like practice was dragging ass," said defensive coorindator Robb Akey. "But as soon as we got into our blitzing they started having fun again. I think it's important for it to be fun for those guys."

Mind you, the backs did there work with standout DT Tai Tupai and up-and-coming Josh Shavies on the sidelines.Still, the ground gainers looked impressive.

For the first half of today's workouts it was all defensive highlights. Pressure from the D forced Josh Swogger to throw a bad pass to Jermaine Green, hitting him in the helmet. Virgil Williams broke up a Matt Kegel pass. Brian Hall put a WWF-sized licking on freshman receiver Jason Hill. while Jeremy Williams and Matt Mullenix each tagged Kegel and Swogger with a sack.

"The defense has it's own personality," Akey said. "I'd like to believe we're attack oriented."

It took some time but eventually the offense started to adapt that philosophy as well. Chris Jordan reeled in a pass from Kegel that had spectators "ooing." The 6-foot-1 second-year freshman leaped out horizontally to catch a pass that looked to be broken up by the defense. Upon catching it, his body flung around in mid-air like a barrel rolling down a hill.

Another hook-up Cougar fans should expect to hear for years to come is Brink to Hill. Hill continued the remarkable playmaking, fully extending himself to catch a beautifully thrown pass from Brink in between two defenders. Brink also hooked up with Marty Martin on an 8-yard toss, which Martin used his speed to stretch out.

But in the end, the defense awoke again with Virgil Williams breaking up a Kegel pass to Jordan and Karl Paymah just missing an interception.

"We've still go to get better," said Akey. "But those guys are playing their asses off. What we did a year ago doesn't matter. I'm excited and optimistic, but we're not there yet."

After practice Akey talked about the loss of last year's Outland Trophy winner Rien Long and predictions of WSU finishing low in the Pac-10. "If that's where they want to pick us I hope it fuels us that much more," said Akey.

With a lot of attention being placed on who the Cougars lost, Akey would like skeptics to take a look at who he has back on the defensive line. "I love Rien and what he did for this program," Akey said. "But with all respect to him I don't think if we would have lost him for a few games to an injury that our performance would have slipped last year. There were a lot of guys who made plays for us, Rien just happened to make the big ones when the spotlight was on us in the big games (such as the sack at the end of the USC game)."

Both Tupai and D.D. Acholonu put in some serious time this offseason with strength and conditioning coach Rob Oviatt. Both had subpar 2002 seasons compared to what they have done in the past. Tupai started every game as a true freshman and Acholonu led the Pac-10 in sacks his sophomore year. Last year Acholonu didn't even register in the top 10 while Tupai lost his starting position to Jeremey Williams after coming into camp at 345 pounds, a good 30 pounds heavier than need be.

Tupai is now down to a trim 320 pounds and Acholonu has put on an extra 20 pounds while maintaining the same instinctual speed he always had.

"No one is more disappointed with D.D.'s performance last year than D.D. was," Akey said. "My expectation is that he will be the best D.D. you have ever seen. There certainly is no lack of desire and effort he is an awesome kid."

Akey was equally impressed with Tupai's effort this off-season, but maybe even more impressed was teammate Acholonu. "That was spectacular what he did this off-season," Acholonu said of Tupai. "We need to get him down to about 310-315 (pounds). He should be able to stay in the game a lot longer than just 50-60 percent of the time."

Notable Notes:
Pat Bennett is expected to miss 2-4 weeks.
Devard Darling was back in full pads and uniform Friday morning.
• Chris Baltzer, a 6-foot freshman, spent some time at middle linebacker.

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