Practice Report: Defense, secondary rise up

PULLMAN—The Cougar defense has surprised with a strong showing this season. Arguably the most significant improvement has come in the secondary, where cornerback Don Turner has legitimized his role as a starter. Assistant coach Ken Greene talked defensive backs, while head man Bill Doba opined on the running game, the quarterbacks and a whole lot more on Tuesday.

"He's really just been there; he's made some plays, made some nice tackles-but I am waiting for him to have a breakout game" Greene said of Turner, following Tuesday's practice.

Turner, tenth this season in tackles with 15, has been solid all year, said Greene, but has yet to turn in a game-changing or truly head-turning performance.

"He's playing solid, he's not hurting us, he doesn't do anything wrong, but I am ready for him, being the senior, being around this long to start stepping up and being a big play-maker" Greene said.

Turner was more inclined to talk about the defense as a whole following the session, saying despite what the Cougars were expected to do or not to do before the season started was irrelevant to the squad, saying each player knew they were capable of making some serious noise once fall camp was behind them.

"With the guys we have this year, we knew we were going to be something special," Turner said. "This spring, when this defense was assembled, we knew when we looked around at each other, and we made that a dedication that we were going to be that defense that flies around, try to bring back that D they had here in ('02 and '03)."

That defense will be tested heavily this Saturday, as the Oregon Ducks led by QB Dennis Dixon and RB Jonathan Stewart come to Pullman, bringing what Greene called a "very talented" offense with them.

"Oregon's the one that's leading the Pac-10 in total offense," Greene said. "They've got very talented receivers, and they've got a heck of a running game, so it's going to be every bit as difficult, if not more difficult, than last week was."

INJURIES ALSO AFFECTED the offensive side of the ball Tuesday, as second-string quarterback Gary Rogers watched the session from the sidelines, out with a significant AC sprain in his non-throwing shoulder. Doba said more would be known later this week but that the sophomore was probably doubtful for Oregon. Doba said getting No. 3 Cole Morgan some playing time was possible if the right situation presented itself, and also talked about the immediate aftermath of the Cal game when Alex Brink was tight-lipped to reporters on the decision to start Rogers the second half.

"It's tough to know when to put the other guy in without destroying the other guy's confidence and making sure he knows that you trust him, and yet you still want to get the other kid a chance," said Doba. "And if he's not performing then the other guy... No matter which way you go, you're wrong -- unless you win.

"We look at the entire picture. Practice, tests and all that kind of stuff. Alex Brink is our quarterback."

DOBA SAID Tuesday he didn't anticipate any significant changes in the running back rotation of Dwight Tardy, DeMaundray Woolridge and Derrell Hutsona in light of the decreased run production the past few weeks, noting a young offensive line has played a part.

"(Hutsona) is a big play guy," said Doba. "D still needs to have a good game. He had a good game against Auburn and hasn't played that well since. There's nobody who is the clear cut winner...and (it's about) who practices well and who makes the least mistakes and Dwight Tardy has practiced well, made few mistakes and run the ball hard."

Meanwhile, Doba said the offensive line is looking relatively healthy for Cal, although bumps and bruises such as Charles Harris' ankle exist. Tight end Cody Boyd (ankle) is not expected back this week. Backup defensive end Mike Graise (hamstring) looks doubtful for Saturday, while receiver Brandon Gibson (hip) is probable, said Doba.

RED-ZONE work in full pads early on this practice week was on tap headed into Oregon, said Doba. The Cougs have had difficulty getting into the end zone inside the 20-yard line this season, and came away with only three points in three red-zone trips against Cal.

  • Wide receiver Jason Hill continued to practice in a yellow no-contact jersey, nursing an AC sprain of his own. The senior looked to be in good form, however, pulling in several impressive catches on the afternoon.

  • Several key members of the Cougar secondary have been beset by injuries this year, including CB Markus Dawes (high ankle sprain) and safety Michael Willis (shoulder sprain). Greene said the recovery for both players has been slow, and the injury has been especially problematic for Dawes. "Markus got really pushed back with his ankle," Greene said. "And he missed four weeks, but he really missed five, and that killed him. So now we're just trying to work him back in, get him back in shape, and I'm really just not sure about him." Dawes was Turner's chief competition this fall for the starting CB position across from senior Tyron Brackenridge.

  • Drawing special praise from Greene were starting safeties Eric Frampton and Husain Abdullah, with Abdullah the biggest surprise for the coach. "Husain's the one that's really impressed me because I think he's come from a guy who had a lot of athletic ability, but wasn't really a hitter and this year, especially the last two-or-three games, he's been really physical," said Greene. "I've been really impressed with it, and I love it, and I hope he keeps doing it."

  • With no bye this year, Doba and staff gave the team Sunday off, a day the team normally runs and lifts. The Cougs this season are altering the practice schedule on a week by week basis to try and keep the players fresh both mentally and physically. Doba said looking at the schedule, the staff is taking nothing for granted; "We could win the rest of them," he said. "Or we could lose the rest of them...It's how well you play that day."

  • Returning to practice for the O was freshman QB Kevin Lopina, who looks to have recovered from illness and took over scout-team duties for fellow QB Arkelon Hall. Lopina is sitting out this season per NCAA rules after transferring from K-State.

  • Doba on Tuesday lamented the career ending injury to Washington QB Isaiah Stanback on Tuesday. Coming out of high school, Doba said Stanback was one of his favorite calls during the week. "I'm really sorry to see that kid end his senior season that way...He's a great kid, I really like Isaiah," said Doba.

  • Senior defensive end Mkristo Bruce -- the nation's top sack artist -- has been named one of 12 finalists for the Lombardi Award recognizing the nation's top college lineman or linebacker. He is the only finalist from the West Coast.

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