Spring Ball Day 12: Paint it Black

PULLMAN--Daniel Blackledge this spring has emerged as a potent offensive threat, and the sophomore wide receiver and quarterback Gary Rogers were at it again on Tuesday. The Cougs worked extensively on the passing game throughout the practice and another wideout, Benny Ward, turned in the play of the day. Meanwhile, assistant coach Travis Niekamp talks 'backers plus much more.

Rogers and Blackledge were the tandem of the day, with Blackledge hauling in five receptions from the senior quarterback.

Blackledge, or "D-Black" as he's know by teammates, figures to be an integral part of the Cougar passing attack this season and prevent teams from overplaying senior star Brandon Gibson and sophomore prodigy Jeshua Anderson, who is missing spring ball as he prepares for a run at making the Olympic track team.

Blackledge attributes his success to his mentors, Michael Bumpus and Gibson, as well as his opportunistic attitude.

"I just try to make the most out of every opportunity, just trying to learn as much as I can every day. I like to just pick something out each day to try to improve on," Blackledge said when asked about his rapid climb up the wide-receiver depth chart.

So far, his approach seems to be working well. Blackledge points out "stepping up and having a bigger role has been a huge confidence booster from last year." He also fits in well with "coaches' expectations of playing physical and up-tempo at all times. The 6-2, 172 pound Blackledge hails from Palmer High in Colorado Springs.

WHILE THE FIRST TEAM duo of Rogers and Blackledge clicked on Tuesday, the second team attack was a little more spread out. After taking Monday off to avoid going over the NCAA's time limits, the offense came out firing on the day in a skelly type drill early in practice. The first team looked sharp, while the second team struggled at times catching the football. The slight case of the drops did not last, however.

Kevin Lopina connected with WRs Reid McEllrath, Benny Ward and Mike Willis twice each. Lopina also found Ben Woodard during the team drills. The one noticeable blemish on Lopina's afternoon came by way of a Chima Nwachukwu interception, on a ball that went through TE Tony Thompson's hands.

AFTER AN EARLY morning snow shower, the team held the helmets only session in the indoor practice facility. Following individual positional work and some team drills, the coaches threw in some heavy conditioning midway through the workout, presumably to see how the Cougs would respond, when fatigued, in a high pressure situation.

After the coaching staff had the team run a few sets of gassers, during which time the injured players did sit-ups on the sideline, the Cougs got back into team drills and worked on all types of down and distance scenarios.

During wide-receiver/defensive back one-on-one drills, WR Benny Ward made the catch of the day with a great grab on a deep ball and managed to hold on despite being blanketed by CB Romeo Pellum.

In addition to Nwachukwu's pick, there were several other nice defensive plays on Tuesday. Walk-on DE Bryce Buslach had a break-out practice, sacking the Cougar QBs twice on the afternoon. Buslach is a lanky, 6-5, 179 pound, red-shirt freshman end out of Issaquah High. Safety Xavier Hicks had a nice practice as well, looking good in coverage and busting up a run.

AT LINEBACKER, Jason Stripling practiced Tuesday and it appears he has turned a corner in regards to his nagging hamstring pull. Stripling worked with the twos the entire practice, making a few nice plays and his hammy didn't seem to be affecting him -- a good sign for a linebacking corps lacking in depth. Linebackers coach Travis Niekamp talked about his group in detail after practice.

"We have a solid group of older guys who have played a lot of football here, (Cory) Evans and (Greg) Trent have been stalwarts here for some time and I am expecting a lot of good things from them this fall. They have had a good spring and progressed like we have needed them to," Niekamp said.

Niekamp said he's pleased with the progress of the top group, but that the depth is the area with room for the most improvement.

"From where they were day one, to what we're asking them to do, from what they are used to be doing, to what they are doing now, they have really come full circle. They are doing a nice job...Our backups are not where we need them to be yet. We need to develop some guys, some guys need to step up. We are making some steps, but not the steps that need to be made as fast as we need to make them," he said.

In regards to Stripling, Niekamp said, "He is a very talented linebacker, but he's going to have to have a big summer and a good fall camp. He's a kid we're definitely counting on."

Niekamp has been impressed by the steps made by Evans, Trent, and Dunn, and also adds,, "Marshal Pirtz has probably been the most improved this spring."

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