Fall Camp: Day 16

PULLMAN— Maybe it was because injured team leaders <b>Will Derting</b> and <b>Hamza Abdullah</b> were back at practice. Perhaps it was the unseasonably chilly weather that had them thinking bowl season, rather than another day of August camp. Or was it the unexpected two days off they'd just had? Regardless why, the Cougars came ready to play on Tuesday, with the offensive line – and surging <b>Norvell Holmes</b> – leading the charge.

"We had a very, very spirited practice on both sides of the ball," said head coach Bill Doba, who surprised his club with Sunday off in addition to Monday and the start of classes.

The offensive line, apparently well-rested and well-healed, looked as good Tuesday as they have all camp, consistently opening holes for the backs and giving the QBs time to throw.

"Those guys are worth their weight in gold," Doba enthused about his hosses afterward. He said they are all members of the F.O.O.L.s Club (Fraternal Order of Offensive Linemen), and "if you get your name in the paper, you're out of the club. They get no credit."

Indeed, so far this August they've been taking their fair share of slings and arrows. Things reached a low point in last Wednesday's scrimmage with all manner of miscues. Doba said it was lack of concentration. Saturday's scrimmage saw improvement.

And Tuesday, well, these guys looked like the force the coaches expect them to be this season.

The biggest surprise in the trenches has been the standout play of 6-3, 302-pound junior guard Norvell Holmes. Back in March, coming off a back injury, the former defensive lineman from Bellflower, Calif., wasn't expected to be more than a deep backup in 2004.

With the season opener at New Mexico just 10 days away, Holmes is now looking at a starting assignment on the right side. He's been consistent and tenacious the entire camp.

The guard spot on the left side is shaping up to be a tag-team affair with senior Patrick Afif redshirt freshman Bobby Byrd splitting time.

The other three slots – Calvin Armstrong and Sam Lightbody at the tackles and Nick Mihlhauser at center – have been locked up since the Holiday Bowl. All three of them should contend for post-season honors.

"I'm really happy with the way things worked out," said second-year offensive line coach George Yarno. "WE have more quality players than we thought we did."

He also noted that his troops are adjusting to his coaching style and system much better this year.

ELSEWHERE ON THE FIELD Tuesday, Abdullah (thumb) and linebacker Derting (wrist) were back in the fold, but not in contact drills. Still no word yet on their status for the New Mexico game, but clearly things are headed in the right direction with them.

Wearing a large, overweight cast on his injured left wing, Derting ran a little and participated in coverage drills. Abdullah, the senior free safety, had stitches removed from his surgically repaired thumb on Monday.

"It was good to do a little work out there. We are going to try and get the cast a little smaller," Derting said. "We aren't quite sure what is going to happen. It was really difficult for me to watch practice the last several days."

Scott Davis, the outside linebacker playing in the middle with Derting's absence, was happy to see Derting and Abdullah return. "It's great to see them out there with us. Everyone on the whole team just feels a lot better with those two guys back."

Derting said he would love to play in the ESPN, nationally televised opener, but said that it will be up to the trainers and coaches. He said that his biggest problem with the cast won't be in tackling players, but when trying to shed blockers.

WSU trainer Bill Drake and his staff took a long hard look at Derting's x-rays and determined that everything was healing nicely, and the wrist bone was all in one place.

"Right now we are just using guarded optimism with Derting. We are just getting him used to playing with the cast, and seeing how he feels afterward," Drake said.

THE RECEIVERS HAD a little trouble adjusting to the weather as some balls slipped through their hands early on. But as the day wore on, despite good coverage by the DBs and LBs, there was one great catch after another.

Tight ends Troy Bienemann and Cody Boyd, each had an impressive grab during skelly. Bienemann later added one in traffic over the middle while taking a hit, but managed to hang on to the ball. Sophomore Chris Jordan made a nice adjustment to get back to a misguided throw from Josh Swogger, reaching in front of corner Alex Teems to make the catch. Jordan, who blew a knee in the Apple Cup, looks to be back at full speed. Junior Jevon Miller had sweet grab of his own along the sideline for a long gain.

Senior cornerback Karl Paymah, back in action after tweaking an ankle, picked up where he left off: dominating life in the secondary. He knocked down several passes and nearly intercepted several more. Paymah has also been showing a lot of leadership, as he helps out the younger defensive backs. "It's all about experience. Marcus Trufant and Jason David taught me everything they knew, so I am just returning the favor," he told CF.C.

NOTABLE: Doba praised Drake and his staff for their work with injured players. Eleven more guys were at practice than there were Saturday.

One player who's still hobbled is senior linebacker Pat Bennett. His right hamstring is only at 60 percent. Midway through practice he took off his gear to give his leg a rest.

The Cougars will practice at 3:30 on Wednesday.

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