Johnson ready for prime time

PULLMAN — <b>Aaron Johnson</b> walked out of the weight room Wednesday with a smile from ear to ear. Greeting he and fellow linemate <b>Odell Howard</b> was a large group of reporters waiting to chat with two young Cougars who suddenly have been thrust onto center stage because of injuries to <b>Steve Cook</b> and <b>Ropati Pitoitua</b>.

Cook and Pitoitua, the Cougars' two starters at defensive tackle, both will be sidelined this week against Idaho after going down in the Colorado game –- Cook to a sprained knee and Pitoitua to an ankle.

Johnson, a 6-6, 303-pound redshirt freshman from Fairfield, Calif., displayed great athleticism with a blocked field goal and two tackles for loss against the Buffs. Johnson was "thrown into the fire," after getting only two reps total at New Mexico on September 3. "You have to be expecting to play," Johnson said, "You don't expect two starters to get hurt in one game."

Defensive coordinator Robb Akey said Johnson is a quiet guy, but after he made that field goal block something clicked for him and Johnson was obviously pumped coming back to the sideline. Akey himself was a bit pumped as well, doing a summersault as Johnson returned to the sideline afterward.

Akey saw a more animated side shortly after when Johnson got his first tackle for loss. Coaches told Johnson he might be getting more reps before the game. "If I'm going out there I'm not coming back," Johnson said he thought to himself.

During spring ball, Johnson, Howard, and Pitoitua all competed for the DT spot next to Cook. In the end it was Pitoitua who earned the starting nod. This summer Johnson worked hard in the weight room and on the practice field to earn the respect of teammates and draw attention from coaches. A nagging groin injury during August set him back, but Johnson never lost faith.

Akey said expects great things from Johnson this season, and sees no reason to alter the defensive packages because Cook and Pitoitua are out.

Johnson was a two-way star in high school, earning honors at three positions – defensive end, tight end and offensive line -- over the course of his junior and senior years at Armijo High. SuperPrep magazine named him one of California's top 100 prep prospects in 2003. He chose WSU over Washington and Cal. If Johnson or Howard go down with injury, Akey said Bryan Olsen, a former offensive lineman, and Jon Conlin, a second-year freshman could fill in. In addition, starting DE Adam Braidwood could slide inside giving his spot to up-and-coming Matt Mullenix.

Cook looks to be out of action next week at Arizona as well. Pitoitua's status for that game is unclear.

The defensive line is not the only side of the ball where new faces abound this week. On the offensive line, look for sophomores Charles Harris and Spencer Hollison to get some serious PT against Idaho as the Cougars search for answers to their woes in the trenches. Their time figures to come at the expense of second-year freshman Bobby Byrd and senior Patrick Afif.

Pitiotua was in the midst of a great day against Colorado when he left at the 9:15 mark of the third quarter with that bum ankle. Up to that point he had a sack, recovered a fumble and forced another.

The Cougar-Vandal game this Saturday kicks off at 7:30 pm PT and will be televised live in the Northwest on Fox Sports Net Northwest.

WSU leads the long-standing Idaho series 66-17-3. The schools have been playing football since 1894, the first year the Cougars had an organized team. Last year WSU won its third straight from the Vandals, 25-0, in the season opener at Seattle.

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