Spring ball Day 14: Bad news at DT, good on O

PULLMAN – The health of Fevaea'i Ahmu's surgically repaired foot has taken on greater import with news that fellow DT Aaron Johnson's sore back is actually a bulging disc that has him in the hospital and may require surgery. Bill Doba, already crossing his fingers that Ahmu can return this fall, is hopeful Johnson won't be lost for the season. There is some good news on the injury front, however.

"Here we've got Aaron Johnson in the hospital," Doba said following Thursday's practice. "And we are probably going to sneak him over to Seattle, and see that spine doctor there. He may have to have a little surgery. He's got a bulging disc, and he might have to have it shaved. So that's going to be, could be a heck of a blow to our (line)."

Johnson, who participated without inhibition early in spring ball, has sat out the last two weeks with what was previously reported as soreness in his lower back.

Despite the setback, Doba was optimistic regarding the 6-7, 317-pound senior's future. "You know, we had a couple of guys (that) had that surgery," he said. One of them – now-graduated offensive lineman Sean O'Connor – went under the knife last May and missed only one practice the entire fall, Doba said.

"It just kind of depends. Back surgeries are -- I am no doctor -- but they're tricky you know. Sometimes they work and they bounce right back and sometimes it takes awhile," Doba said.

The injury leaves a talented but thin defensive line in limbo. Ahmu has missed the entire spring and is a question mark for the fall. DE Matt Mullennix, slated to start last season, missed the entire year with a blown knee that also has limited his work this spring. Another defensive end, Lance Broadus, has missed the last two practices with an as-yet-disclosed injury.

Ironically, DT Ropati Pitoitua, who has a history of injury problems, has been a picture of health this spring.

Taking the place of Johnson in 11-on-11 drills Thursday were Bryan Tarkington and Matt Eichelberger. Sophomore end Kevin Kooyman looked to get the first-team nod in place of Broadus.

DESPITE THE BAD news for the defense, the offense had three reasons to smile Thursday. Wide receiver Michael Willis, running back Ian Bell and quarterback Kevin Lopina practiced in pads. For Willis and Bell, it was the first time this spring.

Willis, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, donned a yellow no-contact jersey but participated in position-specific drills. Bell, meanwhile, who sat out the spring with a hamstring injury, appeared to practice without constraint. Neither player was expected to participate at all in the spring session. Lopina also has been suffering from a hamstring injury.

Willis, when asked how it felt to get back on the turf, replied "it feels good to be out on the field; catching the ball, running the routes. Nice weather, hearing the pads pop, even though I am not the one popping the pads, it's all the same."

Willis played safety his first two years at WSU, but was moved to receiver late last season when it was determined his injured shoulder couldn't withstand the type of punishment necessary to play safety. On Thursday, Willis offered insight to the move.

"Thus far I am enjoying it," Willis said of the switch. "You know defense, it was fun while it lasted, but it just, I don't know; maybe it was just that I didn't have the patience, or what it was, but the coaches, I appreciate them, because it was to the point where I was almost ready to quit. But coach Doba, he said ‘we don't want you to do a foolish thing like that, we think you're a pretty good athlete so we're going to put you on the other side.' So the last four weeks of last season, just catching the rock in practice I felt I was more of a part of the team then I did the previous two years."

Willis said he looks forward to working out in Pullman over the summer with quarterback Gary Rogers and fellow WR's Michael Bumpus and Benny Ward.

Meanwhile, action on the field Thursday was fairly intense, with players laying off the big hits, but making up for it with quick feet and loud vocals.

Leading the charge for the defense in 11-on-11 action was Kooyman and linebacker Cory Evans, who each busted through the line on separate occasions and recorded the "sack" on yellow-shirted QB Alex Brink.

Also looking sharp was safety Christian Bass, who intercepted a Brink pass up the middle intended for Bumpus.

The defense looked sharp throughout the session, keeping the O-line on its heels with strong line pressure and exhibiting fairly solid coverage in the secondary all afternoon.

It wasn't all D, however, as Bumpus and Brandon Gibson continued, as they have all spring, to show moments of brilliance, each capturing several passes on the day and missing few.

Also looking sharp for the wide receivers was junior Matt Sledge, who in QB-to-receiver drills one-handed a Cole Morgan rope 30 yards down the right side over a covering Tali Talakai.

Thursday's session was the final regular practice of spring camp, as the team will wrap things up Saturday in the third scrimmage of the session. The scrimmage is slated to start at 1:30pm.

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