Practice Report: Cougs get defensive boost

PULLMAN -- Tuesday's practice was a wet one out on the Palouse but it was nothing but bright sunshine for defensive coordinator Robb Akey, who welcomed key defensemen back to the crimson fold. O-line coach George Yarno discusses the injury situation up front, who has stepped up of late plus shed some light on the anticipated return of another offensive line starter to the practice field.

On the defensive side of the ball, sophomore defensive tackle Fevaea'i Ahmu returned to practice Tuesday, looking in fine form after recovering from a stress fracture in his foot suffered near the end of fall camp. Akey said he liked what he saw Wednesday out of the 6-1, 289 pounder, and is excited to use a healthy Ahmu up the middle in a formidable rotation with juniors Aaron Johnson and Ropati Pitoitua.

"He looked good for his first day out," Akey said. "Now there's three experienced bodies that we have, so I think it's going to work out nicely."

Akey said the D's predominance towards the 3-4 defense in Saturday's game was due mostly to the Baylor aerial attack, but is not something the Cougs' are afraid to do in the future.

"We gotta do what we're playing against," Akey said. "It gave us the ability to combat what they're trying to do to the best of our ability. Both packages are going to be a part of what we do throughout the course of this season. I liked the way the kids executed some things on Saturday, and it really cleaned up towards the end of the ballgame."

Asked why Johnson was held out for a good sized portion of Saturday's game in the 3-4, Akey said Johnson's PT wasn't necessarily a reflection of poor play on the junior's part, but instead about the dominating play of Pitoitua.

"Aaron's making progress, he's doing fine, but Ropati was playing his tail off," Akey said. "He was the defensive player of the game, and there were some good guys that got nominated for that. It was kind of like playing the hot hand, we were going with the big horse there."

Offensively, the bad news for the Cougs concerns starting tackle Bobby Byrd, who exited Saturday's game following a knee injury. The MCL will keep the 6-7, 316 pound junior out of this Saturday's Pac-10 opener at Stanford.

"Byrd's probably out this week, his knee is a little worse than we thought," Yarno said. "When he'll come back, you know, it's a week-to-week type deal."

Coach Bill Doba earlier Tuesday estimated Byrd will be out 3-4 weeks.

But as they say, with every cloud there is a silver lining, and in the case of the o-line, there are two.

Yarno praised Byrd's backup, sophomore Derek Hunter, for his performance Saturday against Baylor.

"I thought he did well," Yarno said. "He came off the bench, and he helped us, you know he was in on that last drive where we went and won the game. He did some good things. I was very comfortable with him playing."

Yarno also and said sophomore Andy Roof, slated to start at right guard before being sidelined with a broken thumb in August, is likely to return to practice tomorrow. Asked if he expects the 6-5, 299-pound Spokane product to contribute early, Yarno said the challenge for Roof will be to get back into the flow of things after missing a good part of fall camp as well as the first three games of the season.

"If he can practice, and he's ready to go, he'll play. But, you know, he's going to be a little rusty, he hasn't played in month, so we'll see how things go," Yarno said.

The other member of the line who saw more action Saturday than was perhaps expected was freshman Kenny Alfred, who took over the reins at center for senior Josh Duin. Like Hunter, he turned in a solid performance for the Cougs, said Yarno.

"Kenny's starting to come on. He's a talented young player and he needs experience, and he got that Saturday," Yarno said.

When asked if both Alfred and Duin will continue to share time at the position, Yarno said both players have proven themselves capable, and at least for the time being, will indeed share playing time.

"I think Kenny's going to be our guy, but Josh deserves to play and will play."

Both players are capable of playing guard as well, and depending on the availability of Roof and Dan Rowlands (knee), could find themselves digging in next to each other up front Saturday.

Also returning to practice was Markus Dawes. The cornerback practiced without a no-contact jersey following a high ankle sprain suffered in the season-opener at Auburn.

Fellow corner Courtney Williams practiced sans restriction Tuesday, as he took to the turf without a cumbersome cast on his hand. Williams suffered a right thumb sprain in the same game. Don Turner practiced some last week before being ruled out for Baylor. The starting senior corner Tuesday practiced without restriction, boding well for his chances for Stanford.

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