Cougs get boosts for struggling defense

PULLMAN -- Kickers tend to try the patience of football coaches, and Washington State's kickers are forcing Paul Wulff to take a decidedly patient approach in selecting a kicker as the Aug. 30 season opener approaches. Meanwhile, a JC linebacker joins the struggling defense, while a couple of big guns return from the injury list. On offense, a freshman receiver turns in the play of the day.

As for the field-goal kicking job, all three candidates looked sharp in drills at the end of practice Wednesday afternoon. Sophomores Wade Penner, Nico Grasu and Patrick Rooney all nailed a pair of 37-yarders, and Penner and Grasu connected from 44 before Rooney clanked the left upright with his 44-yard attempt.

"It's still wide open … we may not have (a No. 1 kicker determined) until after a game or two or three," Wulff said. "We'll see how it goes, because none of them have kicked in a (four-year college) game before."

Penner handled kickoffs for WSU last season, but Wulff has already said Grasu and Rooney have stronger legs, so one of them will replace Penner as the kickoff specialist. Grasu and Rooney are junior college transfers.

Teammates cheered wildly during the kicking drill -- partly to provide an element of pressure on the kickers, and partly for selfish reasons. Players had to run one "gasser" for every field goal missed, and the volume level of the players' cheers rose steadily until Rooney's miss produced a wave of (mostly) good-natured groans.

Much of the 2-hour practice was held in cool, rainy weather under dark skies. Still, the use of the lights at the Rogers Field practice facility seemed a tad bit of overkill, particularly after the sun broke through toward the end or practice.

STARTING OFFENSIVE LEFT tackle Vaughn Lesuma, the key man protecting quarterback Gary Rogers' blind side, sat out another practice with his lingering back problems. Starting outside linebacker Kendrick Dunn was back on the sidelines along with key reserve running backs Chris Ivory and Marcus Richmond.

The latter three players have been on-again, off-again practice participants due to hamstring injuries. Wide receiver Daniel Blackledge, a projected starter who has missed virtually all of fall camp with a hamstring problem, jogged lightly and stayed late to catch passes after showing considerable rust during practice.

Wulff has yet to rule out Blackledge for the opener against Oklahoma State, but his status is clearly in doubt. Combined with the early season absence of starting wideout Jeshua Anderson due to hernia surgery, and Wulff gave his strongest indication yet that true freshmen receivers Jared Karstetter and Kevin Norrell will play. "We're not 100 percent sure, but it's really looking that way," Wulff said.

KARSTETTER, WHO HAS BEEN starting with the No. 1's the past two days, made the catch of the day Wednesday. After the 6-foot-6 Rogers showed impressive mobility in dancing nimbly to avoid a heavy pass rush, he launched a bomb down the left sideline that Karstetter reeled in by going up high for the ball and securing it after a brief juggling act.

Norrell, the backup slot receiver with Michael Willis healthy again, caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Rogers.

IN A RARE BIT OF GOOD news on the injury front, starting outside linebacker Cory Evans returned to action, and projected starting cornerback Markus Dawes has been cleared for all contact.

Evans played with a cast encased in a huge mass of mummy-like tape to protect the torn thumb ligaments that required surgery after he was injured in practice last week. The "club" on Evans' left hand may have prevented him from intercepting a Rogers pass.

"It affects the ability to tackle, especially with grabbing and holding on," Evans said. "If you lead with your hands, you'll miss anyway. The best thing is, you've got to get close to them, chest to chest, just to tackle them."

Dawes, recovering from shoulder surgery, is regarded as one of WSU's best cover men when healthy. However, he was beat badly by Keith Parr Jr. (formerly Rosenberg) on a late touchdown pass from Kevin Lopina.

JUNIOR COLLEGE TRANSFER Chantz Staden and redshirt freshman Logwone Mitz took advantage of the absence of Ivory and Richmond to take extra reps with the No. 1 offense. Staden looked particularly sharp.

"He's earning more confidence with the coaches … he's doing a nice job," Wulff said.

Staden followed good blocking on several runs, and Wulff said he was pleased with the offensive line's run blocking. However, the coach said he remains concerned about the O-line, which returns four starters.

"They're working hard," Wulff said. "The problem is, we're just not getting all five of them functioning when we need to."

Wulff said part of the offensive line's problems may stem from the long list of offensive and defensive looks being force-fed in the preseason. Co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball made it clear midway through practice that he wasn't pleased with any of the defensive looks.

"We do not come out and play defense like we have today!" Ball screamed. "That is not acceptable!"

After Ball's shout out -- and a series of up-downs for good measure -- the play and intensity of the defense picked up considerably. True freshmen Cory Mackay and LeAndre Daniels recorded interceptions; Mackay against Lopina, Daniels against Marshall Lobbestael. Mackay's pick was gorgeous, as the former all-state receiver made a full-length dive to nab the ball.

Starters have been juggled regularly in camp, but right end Matt Mullennix and right tackle Toby Turpin started on the No. 1 defense for the second straight day. End Andy Mattingly and tackle Matt Eichelberger have played with the 1's most of the fall.

WULFF ANNOUNCED AFTER PRACTICE Alex Hoffman-Ellis, a sophomore linebacker out of California's Moorpark (junior) College, has been added to the roster. He's expected to practice Thursday.

Wulff said Hoffman-Ellis will take the scholarship that had been offered to JC defensive lineman Josh Luapo. Wulff said, "it might me another week or two" before Luapo could be cleared academically after he was delayed in completing his Associate of Arts degree. Luapo is expected to enroll in January, Wulff said.

The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Hoffman-Ellis, a Los Angeles native, recorded 91 tackles and two sacks in 12 games in his one season at Moorpark. Hoffman-Ellis played outside linebacker at Moorpark, but Wulff said he will be used at middle linebacker by the Cougars.

CAMPUS VISITOR: Matt Alfred, a standout offensive lineman for Wulff at Eastern Washington, dropped by practice to visit his old coach and younger brother Kenny Alfred, WSU's starting center. "I wish their parents would have more of them," Wulff said. "Those guys can play all day long."

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