Spring ball Day 3: Hits, backs and Dawes

PULLMAN -- The Cougs on Saturday put on full pads for the first time this spring and the result looked downright painful. Xavier Hicks drilled sticky-fingered Michael Bumpus under the chin, and defensive tackles Aaron Johnson and Ropati Pitoitua were working like wrecking machines in the trenches. Dwight Tardy was sharp in mini-scrimmage action. And corners coach Ken Greene talked up Markus Dawes.

The steak-eaters on the offense and defensive lines got the day moving, colliding in one-on-one "trench wars" over a plastic divider laid on the ground. Although it was hard to tell which side came out on top, players in both white and red had strong showings, especially Johnson and Pitoitua, who looked to muscle their offensive counterparts effectively for most of the drill.

Johnson, who is expected to be a big contributor heading into his senior campaign, has reportedly lost about 15 pounds of fat while at the same time adding muscle and strength. Johnson is listed at an imposing 6-7, 317 pounds.

On the o-line, the intensity of the drill was exemplified by 6-2, 259-pound NAIA transfer Jeff Bowen, who lost his helmet at the start of the drill but kept on pushing until the whistle was blown. Bowen is from Palouse farm town of St. John, but comes to WSU from Minot State in North Dakota.

In 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills, receivers Brandon Gibson and Bumpus each turned in a series of nice grabs, with Gibson looking especially sure-handed on two separate occasions, splitting the defense and pulling down Gary Rogers ropes.

Bumpus, however, was on the receiving end of a big-time hit under the chin from Hicks, a sophomore safety. Bumpus, who led the Pac-10 in receptions for much of last season, was on his back for a few minutes and on the sidelines for a few more. Despite the shot, Bumpus held on to the ball, a short gainer from the arm of QB Alex Brink, and returned to practice after getting checked out by staff.

The second-half of practice was devoted to a spirited and highly intense mini-scrimmage.

With Cougars on both sidelines verbally expressing support for their respective units, the offense and defense turned in fiery performances, with none as impressive as RB Dwight Tardy, who about halfway through the proceedings took a handoff to the right, found nothing and busted up the left for what appeared to be a 20-yard gain.

Tardy and senior Kevin McCall were consistent and solid out of the backfield through the day, but sophomore Chris Ivory wasn't to be outdone. During one drill he bounced right with surprising speed, shook one defender and gained a hard-earned 10-to-15 yards before getting smashed by two members of the secondary -- but not going down -- and then pushed out of bounds.

On defensive, ends Kevin Kooyman and Ansley Jean-Jacques had a pair of plays that stood out, with Kooyman tripping up a bolting McCall at the line and Jean-Jacques busting up a Rogers pass.

Both the scrimmage and the practice ended on a high note for the offense, as Rogers sent a floater into the end zone from 10 yards out and found Gibson, who beat safety Husain Abdullah.

SIZING UP THE CORNERBACKS

The Cougars are looking for two new starters at the corners to replace graduated Tyron Brackenridge and Don Turner. Assistant coach Ken Greene, in charge of the cornerback half of the secondary while Leon Burtnett handles the safeties, said the most pressing concern at this point in the spring season is simply getting players to execute the basics.

"I think the biggest thing we are going to do (this spring) is try to be fundamentally sound, make sure we're not going to be getting beat deep, and make sure people know their routes," Green said.

As for the starting line up, he's hoping to have clarity by the time spring workouts end April 14. "It's going to hopefully clear up some questions that we have, because we don't have anybody back there with any experience. So we need to evaluate the guys we have now, to see if they can play, and evaluate the guys coming in (this fall) and see if we can plug them in and see if they can help us right away."

Ryan Kensok and Brian Williams have taken the most turns with the first unit so far this spring. Greene said he is counting on several players to compete for playing time, including B.T. Walker and uber-athlete Markus Dawes. Dawes was expected to see considerable playing time last season but was sidelined with injury most of the campaign. "From what I have seen so far, I think Dawes, who's been healthy for the first time, has the capability to be a good player for us," Greene said. "So he's the guy I would say right now who's really stepping up."

NOTABLE NOTES

* Neither OL Joe Eppele nor QB Kevin Lopina practiced on Saturday. No word was given on their status.

* Starting punter Darryl Blunt and backup Reid Forrest have had a booming start to the spring, sending virtually every attempt deep and on target.

* The kicking game so far look to be a even between seniors Loren Langley and Romeen Abdollmohammadi. Both have been consistent. Also joining the kicking fray is second-year freshman Carlin Birell, who has not been as consistent as his counterparts but has shown promise nonetheless.

* The team will not practice tomorrow, but will take the field again Monday with a slated start of 4pm.


RECEIVER BRANDON GIBSON.


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