Walker enthused about Cougs' unusual DT depth

FOUR COUGAR TEAMS HAVE won 10 games in a season since defensive line coach Mike Walker has been on staff. But the 2006 unit will be his first that goes six deep at the tackles. With Ropati Pitoitua and Fevaea'i Ahmu on schedule with injury rehab and JC transfer Bryan Tarkington's transcripts close to wrapped up, Walker says he's looking with great enthusiasm to the start of August workouts.

He'll have four bona fides sharing most of the playing time, plus a solid veteran and a promising sophomore in line for spot duty.

"To be able to rotate six defensive tackles is a luxury. It's the first time we've been this deep at the tackles since I've been here," said Walker, who is entering his 10th season as a Cougar assistant. "We'll be able to keep guys fresh throughout the game. That's big when you get into the fourth quarter."

Indeed, the DT talent is so deep that Walker has three returning starters.

Junior Aaron Johnson (6-6, 303) has been a fixture for the last two seasons, while Ahmu (6-1, 282) started all 12 games last year as a true freshman in place of Pitoitua (6-8, 288), a 2004 starter, who was lost for most of the year with a broken leg.

Ahmu, a second-team Freshman All-America pick by Scout.com, broke a foot during spring practice and has centered his conditioning since then on cardio exercises that don't put weight on the foot.

"He's been taking it easy -- we want that foot to heal completely," Walker said at the recent King County Cougar Club golf tournament co-sponsored by Cougfan.com. "He's on track and going to be a good one for us this season."

Pitoitua, who is entering his junior year, is widely considered a super talent but has battled injuries throughout his career. The Clover High product now sports a couple of screws in his lower leg.

"He had a great spring with his grades and has been lifting weights and going to physical therapy during his ankle recovery," Walker said. "He's now back to running, which is great, and getting his leg strong – he'll be ready to go."

WITH NO INJURIES TO work through, Johnson has focused on getting stronger and improving his technique. And with Ahmu and Pitoitua sidelined for spring ball, he took the bulk of reps, allowing him to perfect some of the moves Walker shared from his All-Pro career in the Canadian Football League.

"He's one of the strongest kids I've ever coached and he's also a true athlete," Walker said of Johnson. "He could become the total package. He's working to get off blocks quicker and improve his pass rushing."

New to the Cougar defensive line this year will be Tarkington, a 6-4, 320-pounder from Woodland Hills, Calif. Originally ticketed for Oklahoma coming out of Taft High School, he didn't secure a qualifying SAT score and headed to Moorpark College, where he earned all-league honors. He signed with the Cougars two recruiting classes ago, but fell short of getting his AA degree and sat out last season. He is scheduled to take classes this summer at WSU, and is awaiting final postings on his JC transcripts before becoming officially eligible.

Tarkington has great feet for a big man and solid pass rushing skills, but looks to be the prototypical run stopper.

"We're going to put him at the nose position," Walker said. "He's a big body who plays the run well. He's going to be an added force for us, no question."

All things being equal, Johnson and Pitoitua figure to be the starters, with Ahmu and Tarkington getting plenty of action.

In addition, said Walker, fifth-year senior Odell Howard (6-4, 277) and third-year sophomore Matt Eichelberger (6-3, 313) will be in the mix.

Howard is big and athletic and Eichelberger, who came to Pullman overweight at 335 pounds, is getting stronger, leaner (he's dropped 22 pounds) and making strides learning the position, Walker said.

"We definitely have a top four in Johnson, Pitoitua, Ahmu and Tarkington," Walker said. "But Odell and Matt will provide help."

Howard has played in 21 games over the last three seasons and Eichelberger, from Bellingham, saw action in eight games in 2005 following a redshirt season in '04.

Barring something unforeseen, Walker said the lone defensive tackle in the Cougars' incoming class of recruits – Toby Turpin of Los Alamitos, Calif. – will redshirt. Still, Walker can't hide his enthusiasm for the youngster whom the Cougars out-dueled Colorado, Arizona State and Washington to get.

"He has a motor – he goes 100 mile per hour every play," Walker said. "He's fast, strong – exactly the type of player you want on the inside. He weighs around 260 now but he has the frame to get up to 290 or 300. You're going to like this kid a lot."

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