Coug players get a 'gas' out of coaches

PULLMAN – With Kevin Lopina pretty well set as the starting quarterback this week, intrigue on the practice field turned to turnovers. More specifically, trying to remedy the fact the Cougar offense is making them but the defense isn't generating them. Through three games, WSU's turnover margin is minus 8. On Tuesday, a cadre of defenders, led by the DBs, put the big play back into the stop corps.

Three youngsters in the secondary – Tyree Toomer, Tyrone Justin and walk on Tali Talakai – each intercepted passes, while safety-turned-corner-turned-safety Alfonso Jackson turned in a pair of sweet hits. In addition, middle linebacker Greg Trent blew through for a sack.

The last interception, by the second-year freshman Justin, came against Lopina and the first-team in a two minute drill exercise.

"We gotta get some more turnovers. We haven't gotten enough, so we gotta stress it...We're just trying emphasize making more big plays," said Chris Ball, the Cougars' co-defensive coordinator.

There was motivation for Cougar defenders to make things happen. If they came up with 12 big plays against the offense, the defensive coaches promised to run one of the 12 gassers (long sprints) in place of the players at the end of practice.

"They actually got 13 big plays, so that's what we did (run a gasser for the players)," Ball said.

Linebackers coach Travis Niekamp, who holds a degree in exercise science and earned Strength and Conditioning All-America honors while playing at Illinois State a decade ago, was the first coach to finish.

Head man Paul Wulff commented as he watched, "Someone's gonna pull a hamstring."

Meanwhile, on offense, the line shuffling Wulff promised in his Sunday teleconference with reporters was in full bloom. Newly healthy Joe Eppele may be the new man at left tackle, with former starting left guard Steven Ayers pushing for time. Former starting LT Vaughn Lesuma, drenched in sweat at practice's end, has moved to what may be a more natural fit at left guard. B.J. Guerra also took snaps there.

"We're trying to find the right combination and if we don't do anything about it, we're not going to get any better, so we're trying to make moves to get ourselves better," Wulff said.

On the right side of the line, Micah Hannam and Brian Danaher appear set to return as the starters at tackle and guard, respectively.

Chris Prummer gave standout junior center Kenny Alfred a precautionary day off, but coach Wulff was very optimistic that Alfred would be ready to go for Saturday's 4 p.m. with Portland State. Prummer struggled, botching one snap to Lopina that lead to a fumble and sack during the scrimmage.

Lopina, despite a sore wrist, threw a couple nice deep balls to Brandon Gibson and Chantz Staden. He also had a couple of errant throws, including an interception by scout team cornerback Brandon Jones, who returned to practice after missing time with an ankle injury.

Given Portland State's proclivity to air things out, the Cougar offense firebombed the defense early and often Tuesday. In the middle of it all was safety Xavier Hicks, back after serving a three-game suspension. The Cougar coaches hope that his return will spark the defense and give it that "X" factor it has sorely missed. The defense did show a different tempo than it has in past weeks, with more vocal leadership.

"It's nice to have X back out there," said Ball. "Alfonso has played it before, so it wasn't a big change for him. They did well."

Hicks brought new energy to the defense, and showed the confidence that has been lacking after the past three losses. "I've been waiting for this game since summertime, since camp, since the first three weeks of the season. It was real good to be back here," said Hicks. :"Practicing, not with the ones, you don't really get the full effect, so being back out here getting ready for the game has been a blessing...I don't want to say I was the cause of it (the intense play of the defense), but I think I do bring a lot of energy to the defensive side and I like to bring big hits and turnovers. I think the defense, having me out here, it probably sparked them up a bit.

"It's great to have Alfonso back there with me...Alfonso's a big hitter, I'm a big hitter, so we've got two big hitting safeties back there, so we'll bring something loud on Saturday."

• Linebacker Cory Evans (hamstring) sat out Tuesday's practice, but should play on Saturday, according to coaches. In his place, several players shuffled in and out, including Louis Bland, Marshal Pirtz and safety-turned-linebacker Myron Beck. Talakai, a corner, got a lot of snaps with the first team, as the Cougars prepare for pass happy Portland State.

• Receiver Jeshua Anderson left the practice with ice on his shoulder, and corner Devin Giles also was nicked up on a play and did not return.

• Barring a couple of terrible practices, Wulff said that Lopina should start. "Unless he looks real bad in the next day or two, and Gary does a lot better."

• FSN will broadcast the Cougar-PSU game, with Kevin Calabro and Jason Gesser on the call. Kickoff is at 4 pm. The Village Pub in Magnolia – your Cougar home in Seattle -- will have its 28 flat screens tuned in, plus $5 drink and food specials on the menu.

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