Spring Ball: Interesting doings on defense

PULLMAN -- The Cougs kicked off the second week of spring ball in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts. The coaches put a heavy emphasis on fundamentals, but the big story of the day was a surprising position swap in the defensive backfield.

For all of week one, Chima Nwachukwu and Markus Dawes played corner with the first team defense while Xavier Hicks and Alfonso Jackson held down the top spots at safety.

During Monday's workout, Nwachukwu, a starting corner all last season, and Jackson, a starting safety last season, traded position. The move, at this stage, is more experimental than permanent. "We're just trying to see if Alfonso can play corner and if Chima can play safety," explained WSU co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball. The staff, he said, is "trying to get the best 11 out there and put them in the position where they can help the football team." The coaches want to look at film before making any final decisions.

Fundamentals were the emphasis of the early portion of practice. The offense was drilled on holding onto the football while the defense practiced stripping and covering fumbles.

The quarterbacks again worked on footwork and agility, which has been a theme so far this spring. Senior Gary Rogers, who stands 6-5 and weighs 245 pounds, has looked surprisingly nimble.

Offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy has been impressed with Rogers, who fired for two TDs Monday, hitting receiver Brandon Gibson and tight end TE Devin Frischknecht.

"He's doing some great things and we have really been happy with the way he is progressing" Sturdy said after practice. Of the no-huddle offense the Cougs will deploy this season, Sturdy said, "ideally we want to be a balanced offense. We want to be able to run the ball and throw it. We're still finding a lot out about ourselves as far as personnel goes."

The back-up quarterback job is still one of those personnel issues to be determined. Kevin Lopina, Cole Morgan and Marshall Lobbestael appear to be neck-and- neck behind Rogers Lopina fired a TD pass Monday to junior receiver Reid McEllrath.

More depth emerged at running back as junior Jace Perry out of Camas found pay-dirt on nice run.

Monday marked the first time this spring the punt teams were in action. Sophomore punters Reid Forrest of Ephrata and freshman Dan Wagner of Portland punted a few times each. Wagner is also a lefty quarterback who wears his kicking shoe throughout practice.

The first three players to return punts were receiver Daniel Blackledge, freshman defensive back Tyrone Justin and Gibson.

The field goal unit got its second set of reps this spring. Wade Penner, Matt Myers and Patrick Rooney each got a chance to boot. Rooney just joined the team on Friday and looks to compete for the starting job. None of the three have been particularly impressive but the competition should be good for all of them. For the second time in just two practices, the defensive field goal team blocked a kick.

On defense, linebacker Greg Trent said he is happy with the way the LB unit is shaping up. "We're going to be looking great. We got some strong guys coming back, some experienced guys coming back…and we're getting coached real well," he said. The linebacker spot looks to be one of the strengths of the team at this point. Along with Trent, the Cougs return veterans Cory Evans, Kendrick Dunn, and Jason Stripling. Stripling didn't suit up Monday and there was no word at practice's end on his status

Running back Chris Ivory practiced for just the second time this spring. Ivory has been focusing on academics and getting his grades up.

Defensive tackle Matt Eichelberger was on the sidelines without pads nursing a hit he took in Friday's scrimmage. Sophomore Toby Turpin out of Los Alamitos, Calif. took Eichelberger's place with the first team. Turpin is imposing to say the least, having bulked his 6-6 frame up to 268 pounds. The first string d-line looks to be more up in the air as spring rolls along. Besides Turpin, back-ups such as Jesse Feagin at DE and Andy Roof at DT could be in line for PT if they continue progressing at their current rate.

A bright spot on Monday came in the form of team unity. Toward the end of drills the defensive unit was hootin', hollerin' and generally getting into the competition. After practice, the team gathered round as the linemen tried to field punts from the Jugs machine. The o-line battled the d-line with the losing offensive unit ultimately having to do some up-downs.

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