Spring outlook on defense: battles at DE, CB

THE RECLAMATION OF WSU's once-proud defense begins in earnest when spring workouts commence March 21. At first blush, the task figures to be daunting. In 2005, the Cougs finished last or second-to-last in the Pac-10 in most major statistical defensive categories. The foundation for a rebuild, however, is definitely in place, starting with a defensive line that could turn heads if everyone stays healthy. And while there are spots to fill, there is solid talent at linebacker and in the secondary.

The Cougars surrendered a whopping 442.6 yards per game in 2005. For perspective on the magnitude of that generosity, consider that it is 76 more yards per game than in 2004 (which wasn't exactly a stellar defensive year either). And it's 125 more per outing than in 2003, when the Cougars won 10 games and beat Texas in the Holiday Bowl.

Still, optimism springs eternal. And so it is on the Palouse as attention turns toward the whistles of March and April.

Why? Because a defensive line that helped WSU lead the Pac-10 in sacks in 2005 is largely back and fairly deep. Senior-to-be Mkristo Bruce, a sure-fire All-America candidate, leads the way. He posted 67 tackles last season, 15 of them for loss.


At the tackles, there is an embarrassment of riches: junior-to-be Aaron Johnson (6-6, 330) and sophomore Fevaea'i Ahmu (6-1, 284), each of whom started every game in 2005, and the touted Ropati Pitoitua (6-8, 300), a junior who has spent most of the last two seasons battling injuries. Ahmu, who started in place of Pitoitua, was voted second-team Freshman All-America by Scout.com.

Backing up those three at tackle are experienced fifth-year senior Odell Howard (6-3, 294) and third-year sophomore Matt Eichelberger (6-3, 334).

The defensive end slot opposite Bruce figures to be one of the more interesting position battles -- on either side of the ball -- this spring. The contenders to replace Adam Braidwood are juniors-to-be Matt Mullennix (6-5, 256), Paul Stevens (6-3, 250) and Lance Broadus (6-2, 211), and cat-quick sophomore Mike Graise (6-3, 216).

Mullennix saw action in 11 games in 2005 and came on strong late in the season, appearing to be fully recovered from the knee injury that shelved him early in 2004. He may have the inside track on the starting assignment. Graise and Broadus each played in 10 games in '05 and Stevens in six. Regardless who emerges as the starter, though, a committee approach to the spot could make sense, with Mullennix and Stevens the run-stuffers and the swifter Graise and Broadus the rush specialists.

UNLESS THE COACHES WANT to experiment with moving starting free safety Husain Abdullah (6-0, 192) to corner, the secondary is mostly settled. Eric Frampton (6-0, 205), the Cougars' leading tackler in 2005, is set at strong safety and senior-to-be Tyron Brackenridge (6-0, 191), a redshirt last year, figures to be a lock at one of the two corner positions manned by departing Alex Teems and Wally Dada.

The other corner spot shapes up as a battle among senior-to-be Don Turner (6-1, 183), junior Lorenzo Bursey (5-8, 160), third-year sophomore Ian Bell (5-9, 180) and Courtney Williams (6-1, 193), a true sophomore who was at safety last season and turned in a spectacular effort on special teams. Third-year walk-on Ryan Kensok (5-9, 163) and a slim-downed Shelton Danzy (5-8 1/2, 177), once thought destined for safety, also could be in the mix.


Turner, whom Mike Price once predicted would be the next Marcus Trufant, should be the favorite. He has the most experience of the group – seeing the field in 34 games since 2003 – but has yet to hit his stride in part due to injuries that have sidetracked a couple of his springs. In 2005 he posted 25 tackles, had 1 INT and two pass breakups.

Bursey could be especially interesting to watch, presuming he doesn't move back to the offensive side of the ball. While he played corner in high school, his reputation both as a prepster and then at West Los Angeles College, was built on O. Originally ticketed to play slotback at WSU, he was moved to corner last summer and is still learning the position. He's got great athleticism and superb wheels, so with a season of experience under his belt he could be poised for a breakout.

Building depth at corner was a priority in the Cougars' recent recruiting class. They brought in two CBs who will join the competition in August: JC transfer Brian Williams and Kerry Maddox, a high school standout from Texas. The Cougars also hope to see another JC product, B.T. Walker, in the fold come summer time. He signed an LOI with the Cougars in December with the intention of immediately wrapping up his AA degree and then enrolling at WSU last month. He fell short of the AA, and is now completing coursework, but his LOI is no longer binding. He is set to graduate in May and recently told CF.C that he is firmly committed to WSU.

Safety appears to be well fortified. Frampton (87 tackles, 8 breakups, 1 INT) and Abdullah (54 tackles, 4 breakups and 2 INTs) are the returning starters, but the Cougars have two guys in the wings who will give them a push: Michael Willis (6-0, 217) and DeWayne Patterson (6-0, 197). Willis saw considerable time on special teams last season as a true freshman. Patterson (24 tackles and one forced fumble) earned several starts in '05 when Abdullah was dinged up and also performed well coming off the bench and on special teams. In addition, second-year freshman Xavier Hicks (6-0, 194) and junior Christian Bass (6-2, 212) will try to make their marks this spring.

AT LINEBACKER, THE MOST pressing question coming into spring would once have been this: Who will replace Will Derting? But with Derting going down with a knee injury in Week 4 last season, it's clear who his successor will be in the middle: Sophomore-to-be Greg Trent (5-10, 230). The scrapper from Keller, Texas, played in 11 games last season and started six of them, posting 69 tackles – second-most on the team – and earning second-team Freshman All-America honors from The Sporting News. Seniors-to-be Chris Baltzer (6-0, 230) and Brian Hall (6-3, 229) add experienced depth.


On the outside, seniors Scott Davis (66 tackles in '05) and Steve Dildine (68 tackles) are returning starters. Davis, a two-time honorable mention all-league pick, will contend for first-team All-Pac-10 honors and Dildine, coming off his first year as a starter, appears poised for a stellar season. They'll be backed by athletic young guns Cory Evans (6-1, 211) and Jason Stripling (5-11, 218). Last season as true freshmen they played on special teams and saw spot duty at linebacker. Hall can also play on the outside. In addition, third-year sophomore Alex Hamill (6-0, 218) and second-year freshman Lamar Brumfield (6-1, 223) will make a bid for playing time.

AT PUNTER, WHERE THE Cougars must replace long-time starter Kyle Basler, a neck-and-neck competition is expected to unfold between Fritz Brayton, a walk on entering his third season in the program, and former Portland State punter Darryl Blunt, who walked on last August. The punt return team will be headlined by Michael Bumpus, who is among the conference's most exciting players, with incoming JC transfer Derrell Hutsona potentially contributing as well.

• Spring practices begin on March 21 and will conclude with the annual spring game on April 15.

• The Cougars have 12 regular-season games next year, starting with a tough road contest against mighty Auburn on Sept. 2. That will be followed by non-conference games against Idaho at home and resurgent Baylor in Seattle. The Apple Cup will be in Pullman.

• For a peak at what to expect on the Cougaroffense this spring, click to Spring ball countdown: Battles loom at RB, OL

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