Doba: Don't overlook 'Zona

BILL DOBA said the Cougar Nation may be looking past Arizona but he's expecting a battle royale. The injury situation goes beyond the names on the Medical Report while several Cougs are still set to return to action and/or play Saturday. There are far reaching ripple effects from Michael Willis' move to receiver, including what it might mean for Xavier Hicks, Christian Bass and Michael Bumpus.

Willis' move put into context, with two key points emerging
THE MOVE TO WIDE RECEIVER for Michael Willis (6-0, 213) was first talked about among the Cougar staff back in fall camp, said Bill Doba. The catalyst this week was an injury that makes his shoulder prone to popping out of joint. Willis, a ferocious hitter, hasn't looked like Willis lately and has been favoring the shoulder, said Doba.

The move also underscores two key points in looking ahead to next season.

The first has to do with the mix at safety, where Xavier Hicks and Christian Bass are showing both improvement and perhaps signs of getting closer to being ready to step in, said Doba.

"Hicks is doing well," said Doba. "And Bass has stepped it up the last few weeks."

At the same time, with starter and defensive playmaker Eric Frampton set to graduate after the season, safety could be one of the Cougs' recruiting priorities, Doba said. WSU also hopes to get back DeWayne Patterson for next year if he satisfies academic requirements.

The other effect is on offense, where if Willis adapts well to the receiver role, Doba indicated Bumpus could move to split end or flanker next season with record setting Jason Hill graduating. Bumpus, a slotback, leads all Cougar receivers and the Pac-10 in receptions with 55, but has said ideally he would like to play on the outside.

"He's a good athlete, he's strong and he has great hands," said Doba of Willis. "He's a big strong kid and (if) you put him in that slot, now (maybe) you can move Bumpus out," said Doba in talking about some of the possibilities.

With the injured shoulder, Doba said the only way Willis would play safety again this year is if the Cougs suffered a rash of injuries at the spot. And if surgery is required after the season, the uber-athlete would probably miss most or all of spring ball.

Midway through his second season, and keep in mind Willis played as a true frosh and has not used a redshirt season, Doba also said Willis can still play "a little bit high" on defense. With some of the other safeties showing signs of development, plus the injury, it might make sense for Willis and the team to at least take a look on the other side of the ball.

Because the thing about Willis is that he is such a gifted athlete, and coming out of Lincoln High he could do things on the football field that others could not. But that has not yet translated to the success many envisioned for him at the college level. Still, there is some evidence to suggest he may just find his calling catching the ball rather than trying to separate it from others.

The crimson faithful gathered at the 2004 Pierce County Cougar Club's annual head coach's dinner will recall that some of the biggest oohs and aahs that night were for one film clip of Willis -- and it wasn't on defense.

Willis caught a screen pass with no fewer than eight defenders surrounding him. Speaking to his speed and strength, he turned the certain loss into a 13-yard gain. Then recruiting coordinator Robin Pflugrad told CF.C around that time that Willis reminded him a lot of Reggie Williams, who while he hasn't set the NFL on fire, had a storied college career.

"It's going to be hard right now, at this stage," Levenseller cautioned, lest anyone immediately expect big dividends from Willis on offense. "But there's spring ball down the road, and an opportunity this winter for him to learn the offense."

Willis racked up 1,207 all-purpose yards and 10 touchdowns on offense his senior season at Lincoln.

Sure, on paper Arizona is 3-5, and they've been horrid on offense.

But Bill Doba says a closer look reveals Arizona has been in every game save for LSU, field a strong defense, they're coming off a bye week and the Wildcats have their starting QB, more capable than his '06 year suggests, seemingly ready to return to action.

"The thing that concerns me, and not being phony about it, they played Oregon State 17-10 with their backup quarterback and Oregon State, I guess, is pretty good, what they did to 'SC," Doba said. "I don't think our team is looking past them but maybe the student body and the fans are thinking, 'Well, this one's in the bag, let's go down to Arizona State,' but I think it will be a tough ball game.

"Their defense is a lot like ours...We have to play a smart ballgame and our special teams have to improve, I'm a little concerned about that."

The Wildcats' D is also one Doba likened to the unit in Corvallis, which gave the Cougs all they could handle a few weeks back before coming out on top, 13-6.

RETURNING TO ACTION against Arizona, DT Aaron Johnson (elbow) who will join Bryan Tarkington and Matt Eichelberger in the middle.

Although he may not start, AJ's return will give d-coordinator Robb Akey some flexibility if he chooses to mix in some 4-3 defense, in certain situations. The Cougs have been successful running the 3-4 front but it's also been out of necessity the past few weeks necessity with the top three d-tackles out injured in Ropati Pitoitua (knee), Fevaea'i Ahmu (stress fracture, foot) and Johnson. The hope is Ahmu and Pitoiuta will be back by the Apple Cup.

Although the training staff didn't think he would be ready, guard Andy Roof will dress for the game, although his availability remains in question.

"I don't know if he'll play or not, I don't know how strong that (ankle) really is," said Doba.

ONE BIG REASON for the defensive resurgence this season, in addition to improved play on the corners by Tyron Brackenridge and Don Turner, has been the emergence of middle linebacker Greg Trent, said Doba.

Last year the Cougs adjusted their defense to compensate and help out Trent, a true freshman at the time, when he was forced into action after Will Derting went down.

This season, Trent "knows what to do", and is making the proper reads and drops, said Doba. Along with fellow linebackers Scott Davis, Steve Dildine and now Cory Evans, who has emerged in the 3-4, the Cougar linebacking corps has played solid, like Doba said he thought they would coming into the season.

SENIOR WIDE RECEIVER Chris Jordan (knee) has practiced all week and will play Saturday, although Doba said he's not 100 percent.

"I still think he has a little limp when I see him making cuts, he doesn't make them as hard as he did before -- but he says he feels good. So we'll just kind of play that by ear," he said.

Doba asked Jordan the other day if he thought he would try to play after college -- NFL scouts had been expressing interest earlier this season, particularly after Jordan's three first half touchdowns in the Idaho game.

"He said, no, he didn't think he would, probably try and get these three games in and (call it good)," said Doba.

Jordan will eventually need to have cartilage cells transplanted to allow the lining of the bone to fully, and finally, heal. But after the procedure, football is out of the question for at least a few years, says Doba, which probably means the end of his career.

If these three games plus the potential bowl game are indeed the final ones for Jordan, it's probably a bonus, as well as a testament to Jordan's drive.

Doba said not long ago Jordan was perhaps done for the year but maybe the Cougs could get him back for the Apple Cup. Jordan, who will beat that estimate by two weeks when he takes the field Saturday, has gamely battled through the knee problems since his redshirt freshman season.

NOTABLE NOTES:

• Among the injured, Doba was optimistic DTs Ropati Pitoitua and Fevaea'i Ahmu might be able to return by the Apple Cup, though time will tell. Pitoitua has a knee sprain while Ahmu has been plagued by a stress fracture in his foot all year. Ahmu puts more pressure on his foot than normal because of his build, said Doba, and the medical staff is debating whether to put a larger screw in.

• The number of maladies among the Cougars isn't limited to just the players. Doba was still fighting a bad cold Thursday and has been under the weather the past couple weeks. The coach's youngest daughter, Kris, arrived in Pullman today for a visit through the weekend.

• Arizona coach Mike Stoops is not naming a starting quarterback until game but Doba said he expects to see Willie Tuitama rather than Adam Austin. Tuitama received clearance to play earlier this week from the Arizona medical staff. "The offense doesn't change that much," said Doba, referring to whether Tuitama or Austin lines up behind center.


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