SPRING BALL: Halfway point

<b>TWO WEEKS INTO the 2005 spring session, some answers are beginning to emerge. Other questions will persist long after the Cougs break camp on April 16. Does Saturday's offensive explosion raise concerns over the defense? How's the offensive line performing? How are the position battles shaping up this spring? Who are some of the newcomers making an impact to date?

How's the offensive line performing?
They've looked very good of late, but consistency will be the key. When Jerome Harrison -- who is tearing it up this spring -- is off the field, the unit hasn't consistently shown the ability to blow defenders off the line to take some of the heat off the other young running backs.

Some of that can be traced to a stout Cougar defensive line and players moving to different positions on the offensive line -- and spring ball is most decidedly the time to experiment and tinker. Three freshmen, Dan Rowlands, Eddie Vickers and Andy Roof are expected this year to mount a challenge for playing time -- but line coach George Yarno says each has work to do. "All of the young guys are going to push at it, but they have a long ways to go," Yarno said.

The surprise to date has been Sean O'Connor, now running with 1's at left guard. Charles Harris moved to right tackle and Riley Fitt-Chappell now backs up RG Norvell Holmes. O'Connor doesn't necessarily look like your typical offensive lineman at 6-5 and 279-pounds but don't let that fool you. As a freshman in 2003, used both strength and technique in neutralizing UCLA All-American Dave Ball.

Overall, the line has looked improved but the staff also knows they're capable of more.

Does Saturday's offensive explosion raise concerns about the defense for 2005?
No, primarily because the Cougs were missing over 25% of their starting lineup with Will Derting, Alex Teems and Mkristo Bruce all sitting out the scrimmage. The Cougar defense also racked up 8 sacks on the day.

The Cougs have depth across the line this year, something missing in years past. WSU figures to better plug the gaps and provide increased pressure from the inside with tackles Ropati Pitoitua and Aaron Johnson having muscled up this offseason, providing a combined 600-pounds of bad intentions in the middle.

Adam Braidwood and Mkristo Bruce will be counted upon to continue their late season surge of 2004 when they combined for 10.5 TFL over the final four games. Bruce is one of the leaders on defense -- line coach Mike Walker said his absence Saturday was felt in more ways than one.

But oh, that quality depth. At DE, a veritable cache of riches resides in Matt Mullennix, Jason Roberts, Paul Stevens, Reyshawn Bobo and Mike Graise. Odell Howard and Matt Eichelberger look to be the first two off the bench at tackle with Bryan Olson and Jon Conlin lending added experience. In the fall, defensive tackle gets another boost with the arrivals of JC transfer Bryan Tarkington, Fevaea'i Ahmu and Joseph Townsend.

As anyone who bore witness to the 2003 Cougars knows, pressure up front will significantly benefit both the linebackers and secondary.

With WSU needing to replace 3 of 4 starters in the secondary, who are the leading candidates?
At cornerback, Alex Teems holds down one starting spot but a neck sprain has caused him to recently miss time this spring. Teems also battled a neck sprain during the latter stages of 2004, necessitating the task of finding a good crew of cornerbacks that much more important.

Omowale Dada continues to impress and has been seeing plenty of time with the 1s. Ian Bell earned praise Saturday from coach Bill Doba, fighting through an ankle injury and Tyron Brackenridge has started to heat up here in the last few days.

The corner spot figures to bear watching the remainder of this spring and likely beyond.

Husain Abdullah and Eric Frampton are making plays but the safety position also has questions, missing a key member. The SAT board and NCAA have yet to certify Michael Willis so the phenom won't see action this spring. Willis is expected to receive clearance and when that finally happens, will likely to the top of the depth chart at strong safety.

Who are some of the freshmen who are making an early impact this spring?
Wide receiver Benny Ward has shown quick moves, soft hands and an ability to find open spaces. Rogers is looking more and more comfortable in the pocket and is inspiring confidence. Eichelberger is earning playing time in the d-line rotation. Graise had a head-turning performance on Saturday, with three sacks during the scrimmage. Bell is locked in a battle for a starting cornerback position.

What's the latest on the quarterback situation?
Doba -- who enjoys a media's thirst for a quarterback controversy about as much as root canal surgery -- made it clear before the spring Josh Swogger is the starting quarterback. The fact Swogger's participation will be limited throughout the spring as his broken foot continues to heal won't alter the depth chart.

Alex Brink has taken the lion's share of the reps with Swogger sitting out, showing an improved decision making process and running the offense with aplomb. Freshman Gary Rogers has also made significant strides from last year's duty running the scout team and was singled out by Doba on Saturday.

WSU looks to be in good hands with the trio of signal callers and when the Cougs break camp on April 16, they will do so with Swogger as the starter.


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