WSU Special Teams: Making them special again

PULLMAN -- The campus atmosphere around WSU has been all fun and games in anticipation of the weekend's Homecoming face-off. But the Cougars were were all business during practice Thursday -- and notably so on special teams. The green sleeved helmets signifying special teamers were seemingly everywhere, reflecting the day's sunlight as the units look to bounce back in Saturday's battle with Cal.

Bill Doba told this week that against OSU and in particular on punt returns, Cougar coverage lanes broke down, with players crossing over trying to make something happen. The resulting open creases allowed Beaver Sammy Stroughter to run free to the tune of 100 return yards on but four WSU punts. The Cougs also nearly had a punt blocked.

The Cougars spent extra time this week on the base fundamentals -- protection and coverage lanes. Special teams coach Kelly Skipper said Thursday the return to form of a couple key players to the special teams will hopefully mean big hits and big gains.

WSU is avergaing just 5.8 yards on punt returns at season's midpoint, with a long of 14 yards. Opponents have been averaging almost twice that amount with 10.4 yards per return.

WHILE DOBA has been steadfast in saying the Cougs just haven't provided punt returner Michael Bumpus enough lanes, and that's certainly the case to more than one observer, Skipper also added there have also been a few times when the junior would have been well served to tuck it in and go vertical. At the same time, Bump is the team's leading receiver -- and his contributions on offense have been legion and key to the Cougs' 4-2 record.

"He's getting so many reps at receiver now that I think he is getting worn down so he's not as elusive as he normally is," Skipper said. "The main thing is possession of the football and we're going to try to spring it. We're close. We've just got to get him started and get him up the field."

THE CONTINUED IMPROVEMENT of last year's coverage standout Courtney Williams, sidelined at the beginning of the season with a sprained thumb, will be a significant contribution to the corps, said Skipper.

"Courtney Williams (sprained) his thumb and that hurt his progress so right now we're trying to get him back in there -- but his technique isn't all the way there yet," Skipper said. "Once we get him into form he'll make some plays for us."

Skipper also pointed out that up until last week, the punt coverage unit ranked second in the conference.

"Last week was just one game, we faced the number one punt returner in the country," Skipper said. "You get a guy like that and he breaks some tackles, but we just have to bounce back."

STILL, THERE IS room for improvement, and the opportunity to bounce back will come against tough competition Saturday -- Cal's speedy DeSean Jackson rates No. 14 in the nation in punt returns. He went house against Oregon last week on a criss-crosser where the Ducks appeared to have him dead to rights on both right and left sides of the field before breaking into the clear.

Skipper also noted part of the reason for the lapse in coverages against Oregon State was the absence of freshman Andy Mattingly. The true freshman linebacker out of Spokane returns on Saturday.

"Mattingly made some big plays earlier in the year," Skipper said. "He had a concussion last week so he didn't make the trip and that kind of hurt on our coverage team because he's a really good player."

THE MAIN AREA for where improvement needs to come is clear, said Skipper, on the coverage units.

"We've got a punt team unit that is packed with veterans," Skipper said. "We just have to get a little more production out of our gunners."

Those gunners include Williams, sophomore wide receiver Benny Ward, and junior wide receiver Charles Dillon.

"They're young and if we can get those guys going, then we will be much improved," Skipper said. "We've just got to get better, but I think all of them are working hard. There isn't really one standout, it's more of a team effort, and as the season goes we want somebody to step up and make some big plays."

Opponents have been averaging 23 yards on kickoffs against Washington State.

Skipper also praised the special teams play of senior linebacker Steve Dildine, sophomore punter Darryl Blunt, junior kicker Loren Langley, junior tight end Jed Collins and senior strong safety Eric Frampton.

NOTABLE NOTE: Doba offered some good injury news Thursday, saying Chris Jordan would return this season. The senior wide receiver re-injured his knee against Baylor and his Cougar career had been in danger of having been finished. Go here for the earlier CF.C story on Jordan's injury. Doba said Jordan ran on Wednesday, and a return against UCLA at the end of the month was not out of the question.

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