Akey preps for life without Ahmu

PULLMAN -- With defensive tackle Fevaea'i Ahmu out for Saturday's game at Auburn after reinjuring the foot that shelved him last spring, defensive coordinator Robb Akey says he's ready to roll with Aaron Johnson starting at tackle next to Ropati Pitoitua, but that backups Matt Eichelberger and Bryan Tarkington will need to step up.

Ahmu's outlook is uncertain, though the phrases "stress fracture" and "partial stress fracture" were bandied about readily Wednesday.

Akey says he's prepared to go with Johnson, a junior who started most of the last two seasons. Ahmu, who started every game a year ago in place of the injured Pitoitua, moved past Johnson on the depth chart about 10 days ago.

Ahmu, on crutches, will undergo X-rays on the injured foot tomorrow. Akey expressed hope that the results of the test would not show a break. It's the same foot that sidelined the 6-1, 284- pound true sophomore with a stress fracture back in the spring practice session.

"If it is cracked, then we have the expectation that we'd have him back for Pac-10 play, and that's the big thing. You want to win them all, but the Pac-10 wins are the ones you gotta win, right?"

The Cougs open the Pac-10 part of the season at Stanford on Sept. 23.

The loss of Ahmu, who has drawn the praise of virtually every member of the defensive coaching staff this fall, to the point of earning the starting spot over the equally impressive Johnson, significantly affects the talented but thin defensive line -- a line already weakened with the recent season-ending loss of starting defensive end Matt Mullennix (knee). With Johnson back in the rotation, the front line now boasts senior Mkristo Bruce and junior Lance Broadus at the ends, with Johnson and Pitoitua up the middle.

After that, the experience tails off considerably. But Akey expressed confidence that the players coming off the bench, specifically Bryan Tarkington and Matt Eichelberger, and defensive end Mike Graise, can handle the load.

"Adjust on the fly is what you have to be able to do," Akey said. "But the good thing about it is at least we don't have to throw a rookie in there. Last year when it happened (referring to a similar injury last year to Pitoitua), there's a true freshman coming in (Ahmu) to play, whereas now the guy that gets the starting opportunity is the guy that had been the starter before.

"The depth is what you're dealing with now, and maybe the ability to rotate a guy a little bit more, and keep them a little more fresh."

Akey said Eichelberger and Tarkington are first off the bench at tackle, with Graise coming on at end predominantly in passing situations.

"We expected to have a good three-tackle rotation there coming into this game," Akey said, "But that gives Eichelberger a better opportunity … hopefully he'll step up a little bit. Tarkington, same thing. His deal is getting accustomed to Pac-10 football and getting into the playing shape that he needs to be."

Tarkington, a 6-4, 320-pound JC transfer, just joined the Cougars about a week ago. Eichelberger (6-3, 314) is a third-year sophomore from Bellingham who came to the Cougars ranked by Scout.com as one of the top 50 prep defensive line prospects in the nation. Last season he saw limited action in seven games, posting three tackles.

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