SPRING PREVIEW: New and familiar faces at LB

TRAVIS NIEKAMP PLANS on experimenting a bit this spring. Cougar linebackers might find themselves on the strongside, covering the tight end, one week, and lining up at the weakside the next. Niekamp, WSU's linebackers coach, tells CF.C he has some holes to fill this spring but that the return of a familiar face has him breathing a bit easier.

Andy Mattingly lined up at defensive end for the Cougs last year. But even then, head man Paul Wulff said Mattingly's best position might be as a "loaded SAM-type linebacker", a guy who plays a lot in the box and can blitz effectively.

Mattingly is now back at linebacker full time -- a move head coach Wulff hinted at several months ago. How the Cougs use him -- going out in coverage, playing a traditional strongside role, or playing a loaded strongside type, or a combination of all of the above -- that remains to be seen.

"We're going to be creative with him, I'll say that much," said Niekamp.

Whatever the role, there's little question he'll be counted upon to be one of the big playmakers on the Cougar D, said Niekamp.

Louis Bland, who came up with a number of big stops last year as a true freshman and raised his game down the stretch, is another player Niekamp says the Cougars need to excel.

He's also looking to Alex Hoffman, a redshirt last season after transferring in from the JC ranks, to help fill the void left at middle linebacker by the graduation of four-year starter Greg Trent.

"He'll be a kid we'll be leaning heavily on," said Niekamp.

In addition to Mattingly, Bland and Hoffman, Niekamp's corps includes three other players with starting experience: Myron Beck, Hallston Higgins and Jason Stripling. But all three are coming off surgeries.

Beck and Higgins almost certainly won't participate this spring, while Stripling may be able to on a limited basis, said Niekamp. All three are guys Niekamp says he is counting on in the fall to make an impact.

But in the here and now, their expected absence means more opportunities for young guns like true-sophomore-to-be Mike Ledgerwood.

"It's going to be an open competition," said Niekamp of the linebacking competition. "There are guys like Ledgerwood that I'm hoping are really going to help us. And there's some younger guys, some walk on guys, that I think can help us."

Those walk-ons include Kevin Baffney and Joshua Garrett, both of whom have had "good winters," said Niekamp.

Just as key, the gains made by Baffney and Garrett, coupled with expected improvement this spring, could make them impact players on special teams.

Deon Ford and Marshall Pirtz are also in the mix, but both are young and Ford has battled injury issues much of the time he has been at WSU.

"We're counting on (them)... That freshman year to sophomore year is usually where you're going to make your biggest jump. I'm anxious to see (Pirtz) get to that point. (Ford) has been nicked up, he has a lot of potential, a lot of ability but right now that's all it is... We're anxious to see what he can do healthy," said Niekamp. Andrew Kreutz and Sam Tennant are "great program guys to have," he added.

WITH GUYS REHABBING and unable to fully participate this spring, Niekamp will experiment. But it won't be tinkering just for the sake of tinkering.

"I'd like to find the depth," said Niekamp. "And I might move guys around. Some guys might be a SAM (strongside), some guys might be a WIL (weakside) right now. But a week into it, they might flip flop.

"I'm going to try and find the best three guys that I've got, the best three linebackers I have, and the best three spots to play them. And then kind of do the same thing with the next group and the group after that."

Niekamp will also be looking for continued buy-in. There has been steady improvement in that area but it's time to make another significant stride this spring.

"What I'd really like to do, we need at our position to be a lot more comfortable with what we're doing. We need to take more ownership. We need to master our spots, worry about fit and why we need to (be at those spots). And we need to play a lot more consistently -- we were up and down last year, and we need to be a lot more consistent," said Niekamp.

Washington State went to the 3-3-5 when injuries hit hard last year. Niekamp said ideally the Cougars want to be in the 4-3 as their base defense but injuries require coaches to adapt.

"We're not as deep as we want to be, or need to be, at any position defensively," said Niekamp. "Because of that, things may change -- you get a couple sprained ankles here and there and things may change out of necessity."

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