DAY 16: Cougar D has solid day in coverage

PULLMAN--The No. 1 offense went against the No. 1 defense without all three projected starting receivers Thursday. That helps explain why the list of players who dropped passes was lengthy, though Michael Willis and Kevin Norrell fared well. And drops aside, WSU's pass defense -- abysmal much of last season -- again provided hope for the '08 season by coming through with another solid performance.

"There were times the defense had great coverage," coach Paul Wulff said. "That was very encouraging."


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Sophomore safety Chima Nwachukwu, who switched positions with fellow starter Alfonso Jackson and moved from cornerback in the spring, said much of the credit for the defense's improved play should go to new secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball.

"He just raised our expectations," Nwachukwu (pronounced WATCH-uh-koo) said. "He expects perfection on every single play. That's what we're striving for this season."

THE COUGARS RETURN nine starters from a defense that ranked at or near the bottom of the Pac-10 in virtually every meaningful statistic.

Nwachukwu, who started as a true freshman, said experience and new schemes have made the Cougars better on defense and pointed to the linebackers' improved play as a key component.

"Altogether, we're cohesive," said Nwachukwu. "The linebackers, corners and safeties are all on the same page, and the D linemen, they're getting a rush on the quarterback."

Even when the Cougars Thursday chose not to mount an all-out pass rush on certain plays, the secondary and linebackers often locked up would-be pass catchers. Senior defensive end Matt Mullennix joined in on the fun by intercepting a short pass over the middle by Gary Rogers. Linebackers Cory Mackay and Sam Tennant "sacked" elusive backup quarterback Kevin Lopina on consecutive plays with the No. 2 defense.

Rogers found tight end Devin Frischknecht in the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown. Backup tight end Ben Woodard also hauled in a TD pass, a 9-yard strike from Lopina.

Reigning Pac-10 receiving leader Brandon Gibson sat out practice with a sore neck. Jeshua Anderson (hernia surgery) is expected to miss the first three games. Daniel Blackledge, the third wide receiver originally projected to start, has just recently returned but is being limited to light work due to a hamstring.

Wulff said Gibson "probably" will play Friday afternoon in the team's second and final full scrimmage. Admission is free, with a 2:30 p.m. start scheduled at Martin Stadium.

COUGAR ROOKIE Patrick Rooney, bidding for the kicking and punting jobs (projecting starting punter Reid Forrest's surgically repaired ankle is not expected to be ready in time for the opener), experienced a rough day at practice.

After mishandling three snaps during punting drills, Rooney stumbled a bit on his first two field-goal attempts and missed, then a high snap threw off his timing and he missed his third try.

He did, however, connect from 51 yards on his other attempt.

Wade Penner and Nico Grasu, battling Rooney for the kicking job, went 3-for-4 while kicking from 40, 43, 47 and 51 yards. Penner came up short from 51, but the big-legged Grasu made it with ease.

COUGAR RECEIVERS Michael Willis and Kevin Norrell, filling in at the slot position vacated by Blackledge, continued their strong play. Starting offensive tackles Vaughn Lesuma (back) and Dan Rowlands (shoulder) sat out. The coaches continue to experiment across the board and Matt Eichelberger was the starting defensive right tackle, Toby Turpin had been with the No. 1 defense yesterday.

Another first year Cougar, junior Myron Beck, started with the 1's at safety and broke up a potential touchdown pass in the end zone.

Wulff, who rarely runs the Cougars at the end of practice, wrapped things up Thursday afternoon by pushing the troops through a series of long range sprints. Players who consistently finished at or near the front of their groups included Rogers, Tennant, No. 3 quarterback Marshall Lobbestael, reserve safeties Kyle McCartney and Easton Johnson and, for the linemen, Cougar rookie Zack Williams.

WULFF SAID THE Cougars overall were "a little flat" at practice on Thursday, which he chalked up partly to the length of fall camp. The Cougars have taken just one day off since practice began Aug. 5 and on seven occasions have held two practices in one day, not counting split squad sessions.

"We're a little tired, probably more mentally than anything," Wulff said. "Probably like in most camps."

NOT ONLY ARE the Cougars the consensus "favorites" to finish last in the Pac-10 this year, but there could be a predicted drop-off next season, since half the 2008 starters figure to be seniors. The talent and leadership of players like Gibson, Rogers and middle linebacker Greg Trent will be difficult to replace.

The 2010 Cougars are starting to shape up as a potential powerhouse, thanks in part to a 2009 recruiting class that Wulff rates "very good" thus far. All six of the known players who have made verbal commitments to the Cougars -- verbal commitments are non-binding and won't become official until February's Signing Day -- are national top 75 picks for high school seniors at their positions.

Darren Markle from Mountain View High in Meridian, Idaho, is WSU's top-rated recruit. He's ranked the No. 25 middle linebacker in the nation.

"We're getting guys we're shooting for and guys we feel are going to fit our style of play," Wulff said. "Guys who truly want to be Cougars. "I think they can see the vision, where we're headed."

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