Many happy returns, including Pitoitua

PULLMAN – Sure, plenty of starters were back on the field for Washington State on Wednesday, with touchdown-machine Jason Hill, run-stopper extraordinaire Steve Dildine, and special teams stud Kyle Basler among them. But the biggest news -- literally -- was the return of Ropati Pitoitua, the Cougars' giant 6-foot-8, 300-pound defensive tackle.

Last week, WSU head coach Bill Doba had speculated that the 2004 All-Pac-10 freshman team honoree could see a few snaps against Stanford, but Ropati Pitoitua never saw the practice field. On Wednesday, Pitoitua was back in pads.

"I felt pretty good," Pitoitua said afterwards. "I'm back into it mentally. I'm focused."

The sophomore starter has missed the Cougars' first five games with a broken right leg sustained in August.

Pitoitua said he felt about 90 percent healthy, and defensive coordinator Robb Akey said the big man could see as many as 10-15 snaps Saturday against UCLA. Pitoitua didn't participate in most of the day's drills, and looked obviously rusty when he was on the field. Still, everyone on the team sounded happy to have him back.

"I'm excited," said defensive tackle Aaron Johnson. "Ropati is a big-time playmaker."

Freshman Fevaea'i Ahmu, who has been starting in Pitoitua's absence, said he was handling the inevitable oncoming drop in playing time "as well as I can," and didn't seem upset at all.

"[Ropati] being back gives us one more person to rotate in and out, so AJ isn't taking 75 snaps a game," Ahmu said. "Once he's all the way back, I'm just going to come in whenever I can and help out the defense."

ALSO RETURNING TO to the field Wednesday were receivers Jason Hill and Chris Jordan, punter Kyle Basler and linebacker Steve Dildine.

Hill missed the Stanford game with a thigh contusion, Jordan missed the game with a hip flexor injury, while Basler had been in the hospital with flu-like symptoms for the past few days, and Dildine missed Tuesday's practice with a sore leg. All four players were on a limited practice plan.

Michael Bumpus had his right knee taped again, but barely practiced, whereas with the same treatment on Tuesday he fully participated. Marty Martin filled in for Bumpus as the No. 1 slot receiver, while Jerome Harrison and Don Turner fielded punts.

THE PLAYER OF the day, though, was cornerback Tyron Brackenridge. Using his redshirt year, the senior will not play a game this season for academic reasons, but on Wednesday he looked better than he's looked all year.

On one play, Brackenridge perfectly played a double-move route by receiver Scott Selby -- without so much as even a misstep -- and intercepted the pass, reading quarterback Josh Swogger like a children's book.

A couple minutes later, Brackenridge guarded Jordan on a red-zone fade route. Brackenridge didn't give Jordan any breathing room and made an outstanding play on Alex Brink's pass, batting the ball away -- and nearly intercepting it -- while falling backwards. To top off a trio of great plays, Brackenridge was picture-perfect in defending a comeback route by Trandon Harvey, knocking down Brink's pass at the goal line.

No one player stood out on offense, but Troy Bienemann made the catch of the day when he stretched out for a one-handed grab over the middle.

Cody Boyd sat out practice, after cutting short Tuesday's session, with an ankle injury. More should be known late today about the tight end's availability for Saturday's homecoming game against UCLA.

Dwight Tardy changed his number once again, going back to No. 31. Tardy wore No. 21 on Tuesday.

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