One BIG question

THREE LONG MONTHS of waiting are over. Football season is back. After three straight top 10 seasons, Washington State's Cougars will officially embark on a fourth when spring drills commence this afternoon. And while all eyes will be on the three-way battle at QB, the most pressing question may instead be directed at the defensive line, where replacements must be found for four long-time standouts.

D.D. Acholonu, Isaac Brown, Jeremey Williams and Tai Tupai -- fixtures on the Cougar stop corps for most of the last three seasons -- will be in NFL training camps this summer.

That represents a lot of experience, a lot of beef and a lot of speed. And now it's all gone.

But don't think for a moment that Robb Akey is looking back. While the future may not be so bright that he's got to grab the proverbial Foster Grants, it's definitely straight ahead with confidence for the enthusiastic defensive coordinator.

"We lose all of the defensive line, but we have some great talent coming back," says Akey. "At the ends, Adam Braidwood (6-5, 264) has done a good job over the last two seasons and Mkristo Bruce (6-5, 249) gets better everyday -- his playing time increased last year as the season went on. We can rely on them. And at tackle we have Steve Cook (6-3, 293), who's been rotating in for the last three years. He's played a big role and we expect real good things from him this season. So the question this spring is, Who is going to be that other starting tackle?"

Odell Howard, a third-year sophomore-to-be who's up to 6-3, 272, would be the odds-on favorite.

"Odell got some playing time this past year, so we need to challenge him to step up," Akey said. "Hopefully he'll take over that other tackle position, and certainly he'll be able to take advantage of the summer and continue to get his body ready."

Also looking for serious PT at tackle will be youngsters Aaron Johnson (6-6, 283) and Ropati Pitoitua (6-7, 285). Johnson redshirted last season and Pitoitua is a grayshirt.

"Aaron is a big guy, he's a big, big body. And we'll need to see if he's strong enough for us to be a factor in there. Ropati is a big son-of-a-gun. How fast can he adjust to playing at the Pac-10 level? He'll get spring ball, summer and two-a-day camps, so that will tell us a lot."

In addition, look for Bryan Boyer and Bryan Olsen to make their case at tackle, as well as Jon Conlin and Kevin Williams. Boyer, Conlin and Williams are all back from injuries.

At defensive end, the backups to Braidwood and Bruce have Akey excited: Matt Mullenix (6-5, 235) and Reyshawn Bobo (6-2, 210). Mullenix has a great motor, says Akey, and the lightning fast Bobo, up 14 pounds from last season, could serve as a pass-rushing specialist the way Acholonu did early in his career. In addition, athletic tight end Adam West (6-6, 243) will try his hand at DE this spring.

Akey is also eager, come August, to see how touted JC transfer Letrell Myers (6-3, 240) will contribute.

Aside from finding the second starting tackle, Akey says determing the depth of the line is one of his most pressing concerns this spring.

"Are we going to have four guys that are going to have play all the time? Are we going to be able to rotate six? Are we going to have eight that we can rotate? I don't think we'll know entirely the answer to that question until we get into our two-a-day camp. Spring will tell us some, but there's a lot of youth in there.... so therefore you're looking at how quick can you get them to mature – physically as well as the ability to mentally be able to handle what they're doing."

NOTABLE NOTES:

If Howard nails down the right tackle spot and Bruce secures the weakside end position, it will mean two of WSU's four starting steak eaters are former quarterbacks. It's true. Both Howard, from Pomona (Calif)High, and Bruce, from Renton's Liberty High, were signal callers in high school, collectively throwing for 16 TDs and nearly 2,000 yards as seniors.

Speculation that Braidwood might move inside from his defensive end spot is just that. There are no plans for that to occur, says Akey, barring some freak rash of injuries to tackles.

This spring the Cougars will practice Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays with Saturday morning scrimmages for the first three weeks. The final week will not include a Thursday session. The culmination of it all will be the Crimson & Gray game at 1 pm on April 17 in Martin Stadium.


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