With experience, DL should be improved

<b>FOR WSU DEFENSIVE coordinator Robb Akey, the disappointment of not earning a fourth-straight bowl invitation was tempered by the déjà vu he saw in his defensive tackles. Their struggles and progress recalled his interior guys from 2000. That season featured youngsters in the trenches and a series of close losses. On the eve of spring workouts that'll help determine if 2005 follows suit like 2001, Akey says Aaron Johnson and Ropati Pitoitua are trending the same way as Long, Williams and Tupai

"In 2000, we had a 4-7 season that was as frustrating as the 5-6 one we just had. We had some young guys who were up and down that year – Rien, Jeremy and Tai."

The Cougar Nation watched how those three blossomed, helping light a string of three consecutive 10-win seasons.

Akey thinks Johnson and Pitoitua are on the same glide path.

"We went through growing pains on defense in 2004," Akey said. "It all starts up front. We had two freshmen tackles (Johnson and Pitoitua) playing a ton who had never played a down of college ball before, and a sophomore defensive end (Mkristo Bruce) who was a quarterback --- a quarterback --- in high school."

So when Akey says the 2005 Cougar defense will be improved, he's placing a lot of that confidence in the experience of -- and progress made by -- those young guns in the middle up front, as well as Bruce and senior-to-be Adam Braidwood on the ends.

Word out of Pullman is that Johnson (6-6, 305) has been attacking the voluntary workouts this off season. He was forced into a starting role last season when Pitoitua and Steve Cook were lost to cut blocks in the Colorado game.

AJ ended up starting seven games before missing the final two weeks with injury, averaging nearly one tackle for loss from the interior in those seven starts.

Defensive tackle Odell Howard showed flashes of what he can do from the inside, with 3.5 sacks last season while Bryan Olson and Jon Conlin will lend depth behind him.

At defensive end, Matt Mullennix was turning heads in rotation last season before tearing his ACL in Week 4. He'll be held out of contact this spring but is expected to be 100 percent by fall camp.

Also at DE are Paul Stevens (6-3, 246) and Adam West, the one-time tight end who is up to 260 pounds and could be in line for a ton of PT in 2005 as a third-down pass-rusher. Reyshawn Bobo (6-2, 220) could also be in the mix as a speed rushing presence off the end.

Then there's the youngsters in the form of second-year freshmen Jason Roberts, Michael Graise and Matt Eichelberger.

All three will have an opportunity this spring to earn a spot in the rotation – Roberts and Graise at DE and Eichelberger at DT. Roberts, in fact, was in line to possibly have his redshirt burned a year ago before being sidelined with injury early in the season. Eichelberger, who arrived in Pullman at 358 pounds, is a great athlete who dropped more than 30 pounds by mid-season and has continued to round into fighting trim over the winter.

Incoming JC transfer Bryan Tarkington (6-3, 290) also has a chance to earn playing time at DT when he arrives for fall camp. At Moorpark College last season, Tarkington dominated with 16 sacks, 7 forced fumbles and 5 deflected passes. He committed to Oklahoma out of high school before taking the JC detour.

One of the stars of this year's recruiting class, DT Fevaea'i Ahmu (6-0, 290), also has a chance to earn turns up front as a true freshman this fall, according to Akey. Ahmu abused offensive lines in his final prep campaign to the tune of seven or more tackles in eight of 10 games and at least one sack in seven of 10 games.

* The undisputed leader of the Cougar defense, Will Derting, will not participate in contact drills this spring while he recovers from off-season wrist surgery. Akey says Derting probably could go, but there's no reason to take a chance. He also said Derting will remain at middle linebacker, rather than return to the outside.
* Spring workouts commence on March 22 and conclude with the Crimson & Gray scrimmage on April 16.

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