Spring Ball Day 1: the Wulff era begins

PULLMAN – Washington State kicked off the Paul Wulff era of Cougar football Monday with the start of the spring practice season. The intensity was palpable and the new-look offenses and defenses appeared to sit well with the players.

Spring practice is typically the time to stress technique. The challenge facing this year's team is that they also have to incorporate the new systems on both sides of the ball. "We only have so much time and we need to utilize all the time we have available from meetings to time on the field," Wulff said.

Senior safety Alfonso Jackson was quick to point out that the defense has been simplified and that the competition for starting jobs appears to be wide open. That appears to have injected a certain level of energy into the squad. "We want to become the best tackling team in the nation, not just the Pac-10," Jackson enthused.

Jackson, by the way, took most of the first-team reps at safety on Monday, along with Xavier Hicks. Jackson was a starter last year and Hicks was a part-time starter in 2007. Hicks played exceptionally well during 11-on-11 drills, intercepting two passes -- one each from Gary Rogers and Marshall Lobbestael.

They were complemented on the first-unit corners by Markus Dawes and Chima Nwachukwu. Dawes is applying for an extra year of eligibility via a medical redshirt and is free to practice until the NCAA makes its ruling.

On the defensive line, where A'i Ahmu is the only returnee with significant playing time, the first-unit Monday consisted of Ahmu and a slimmed down Matt Eichelberger at the tackles, with Kevin Kooyman at left end and converted linebacker Andy Mattingly at right end.

The starting linebackers were not a surprise. Greg Trent anchored the middle with Cory Evans and Kendrick Dunn on the outside. Jason Stripling, back after sitting out last season due to academics, figures to give Dunn a run for a starting spot.

On the offensive side of the ball, Wulff was asked about the quarterback position and said, "Gary's our guy." Wulff compared Rogers' opportunity to that of former Cougar QB Matt Kegel.

Rogers, like Kegel in 2003, is a fifth-year senior looking to shine after years backing up a record-setter.

Rogers described the Cougs' new n-huddle offense as "fast-paced and high tempo" and said he is looking forward to running it.

Rogers will have an experienced O-Line protecting him. As of today, the line figures to shape up as follows. Kenny Alfred at center, Dan Rowlands and Andrew Roxas at right and left guard respectively, and Micah Hannam and Vaughn Lesuma at right and left tackle.

The tight end position figures to be utilized slightly less in the new offense, but Devin Frischknecht and Ben Woodard each saw considerable time with the first team.

At receiver, All-Pac-10 performer Brandon Gibson is back but speed-burning youngster Jeshua Anderson is on the track team looking to make a run at the Olympics before getting back into football in September. With Anderson gone, senior Benny Ward and one-time defensive back Michael Willis appeared to get plenty of prime-time reps.. Willis has shown enormous potential since coming to WSU, but a shoulder injury sidelined him and contributed towards his move from DB to WR. If the first day of spring ball is any indication Willis will play a huge role in the new offense, lining up all over the field.

With starter Dwight Tardy out for spring rehabbing the knee he injured late last season, the running back position may be the most interesting position battle to monitor. The battle for playing time right now figures to be between Logwone Mitz, Chris Ivory, and Marcus Richmond. Wulff said Chris Ivory did not participate in the opening spring ball session due to academics but likely will take part on Tuesday. Ivory's overall participation this spring will be evaluated on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis as to how he's doing in the classroom. "His latest report is he's doing better in school..he's done a much better job these last 3-4 weeks. We just want to make sure we do what's right for Chris and him doing well academically."

  • Wulff has instituted a "Unity Council" at Washington State. It consists, he said, of the players who are the most respected on and off the field. He declined to go into the details but said in general, the players have input in the decision making process on team issues such as discipline for players who get into trouble off the field.

  • Tight end Trevor Mooney is cleared to practice but Wulff said he will be "penalized for scrimmages and those types of things" stemming from what the Spokesman-Review reported last month as a citation for being a minor in possession of alcohol.

  • The Cougs' practice sessions this spring will tend to run longer than they have in recent years, said Wulff, as the Cougs' implement new schemes like the no-huddle offense and also look to build unity.

  • Andy Roof was back on the field having returned to the team and switched from O-Line to defensive tackle. With an ear-to-ear grin Roof talked about how nice it was to be back playing ball. Roof says he "planned on returning all along, but the new coaches made a big difference" by making him "feel like the wanted you around." Roof stressed how much all the players really like all the new coaches and when asked what his goals were for the season, it was simple: "We want to win a bowl ring."

  • The spring season will conclude with the Crimson & Gray game on April 12. That's Mom's Weekend.

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