Walker cautious, but optimistic, about DTs

WSU DEFENSIVE TACKLES coach Mike Walker was all smiles a year ago as he pondered the immense depth of his unit. Nowadays, after a season and off-season full of injuries, his outlook for the upcoming campaign is more guarded. However, good news on the rehab front and improved play among the backups puts him in an optimistic frame of mind with the start of fall camp just six weeks away.

"If we keep our guys healthy, we'll be good," Walker says emphatically. If is the operative word in that sentence as three-year starter Aaron Johnson recovers from back surgery and Fevaea'i Ahmu, who beat out Johnson for a starting role last fall, works his way back from foot surgery. Senior honors candidate Ropati Pitoitua is healthy, but the historical fact is that he has more history with doctors than Florence Nightingale.

At the recent King County Cougar Classic co-sponsored by CF.C, Walker said he expects Johnson and Ahmu to be recovered and crackin' heads when the Cougs open the season at Wisconsin on Sept. 1.

Ahmu missed much of last season with a stress fracture and sat out all of the spring session. Johnson, a three-year starter, missed the final two weeks of spring practices when the soreness in his back turned out to be a bulging disk. It was repaired by the Seattle Seahawks' surgeon.

Now-graduated Cougar offensive lineman Sean O'Connor went under the knife in spring 2006 with a similar surgery and didn't miss a game -- and only one practice -- all last season.

Walker said the 6-7, 310-pound Johnson should start jogging any day now. And Ahmu's recovery, which began with underwater jogging back in April, has come along nicely, ending talk of 2007 being a reshirt season for him.

As for the backups, Walker said fourth-year junior Matt Eichelberger (6-4, 320) and second-year freshman Toby Turpin, who has added 20 pounds to his 6-5 frame and now checks in at 280, turned in solid spring performances. Eichelberger, who saw considerable action late last season when injuries mounted, figures to see plenty of PT this season. Walker said Turpin, who possesses a high upside, needs to add even more weight.

In addition, 6-5 senior Bryan Tarkington, who has slimmed down to 305 from 320 last year, will be in the mix. Like Eichelberger, he saw action late last season when injuries piled up. Classroom demands kept him from regular participation in the spring season. Walker said Tarkington's focus this fall will be to improve his consistency.

Incoming freshman B.J. Guerra, a 6-3, 294-pound defensive tackle from Moses Lake, is likely headed for a redshirt season, said Walker, but he added, "you never know what the new guys can do until you see them when they get in here working everyday."

NOTABLE NOTE: Great seats for the Sept. 8 Cougar game vs. San Diego State at Seattle's Qwest Field are available. Ticket prices range from $7 to $50. Call 1-800-GO-COUGS or go online at wsucougars.com to order. Game time has yet to be determined.

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