SPRING BALL DAY 8: Bland, Cougar D shine

PULLMAN--The defense turned in a nice performance Thursday, including a pick-six from CB Brandon Jones who was able to hold on despite the bulge of padding to protect his sore hand. Jones has now spent two practices without the yellow no-contact jersey and showing the physical style of play he's known for now having been cleared for contact. But it was 'backer Louis Bland who shined brightest.

Daniel Simmons spent most of Thursday's practice taking reps with the ones opposite Jones at the other corner spot, and showed a real knack for getting his hands on the football.

While Simmons was unable to capitalize on three turnover opportunities that were thrown his way, unable to hang on and make a couple of tough grabs, he did show he has good instincts for positioning himself to make a play.

Simmons has take full advantage of absences this cornerback this spring to seemingly put himself in a great position to compete for playing time and a possible starting role this season. Romeo Pellum remains suspended for an undisclosed violation of team rules and has missed the entire spring. Simmons, along with fellow cornerbacks Kevin Frank and Tyrone Justin and linebacker Deon Ford were also suspended for a separate unspecified violation of team rules and missed the first couple of spring practices.

Linebacker Louis Bland on Thursday had a stellar practice, earning him the praise of position coach Travis Niekamp.

"Louis really had a good practice today, he probably made five or six different plays from interceptions to tackles for loss, if guys can play they can play...I'd love to have a whole bunch of 6 foot 4-250 pound kids that run 4.5, but man, if they can play football an they're a little bit shorter and smaller, then what the heck."

While Bland, listed on the spring roster at 5-10, 202, is undersized to play at the linebacker position, Niekamp sees shades of another undersized linebacker who once wore the crimson and gray.

"Steve Gleason was never a monster, and he was a helluva player here...I think Louis has the chance to do that if he continues to get better, and I think he took a big step today in that direction."

Niekamp said that the injury situation at linebacker -- with Andy Mattingly, Jason Stripling and Myron Beck not participating much this spring -- was disappointing because he dearly wanted to get them loads of reps. However, the silver lining is the opportunity opened up for other players to get turns, in particular redshirt freshman Joshua Garrett, who has spent some time with the first team defense alongside Bland and middle 'backer Alex Hoffman-Ellis.

The extra reps may not show up a lot on defense when the injured players return, said Niekamp, but should have a big impact on special teams.

OFFENSIVELY, THE PASSING game had a tough day. Marshall Lobbestael threw a couple of picks in skelly and Kevin Lopina was overthrowing his open receivers on several occasions. The pair completed a few passes to the tight ends and running backs, but failed to connect on many passes to the wideouts during both the scrimmage and skelly portions of practice.

The running back position battle continued to sizzle, with James Montgomery turning in back to back touchdown runs from about 20 yards out, and then took another run 15 yards up the middle.

Montgomery's style is a bit different than that of the other backs, and he has different strengths.

"I like to slash the defense a little bit, so I like to get up in there and make a couple cuts and get out and try to see where it's at. I like my vision."

Montgomery said the on the field competition hasn't stopped the group from developing close friendships.

"We're all pretty tight, we're in the Palouse so we hang out together all day," said Montgomery.

Montgomery first played running back in eighth grade, after playing along the O-line in Pop Warner football. After his freshman year in high school, his second year at the position, Montgomery realized that he had a future in football after high school.

FOR SATURDAY'S full scrimmage, the first of the spring, Paul Wulff said he wants to see both first team units make some plays and exhibit better execution "across the board."

He also plans to implement some special teams into the middle of the session.

While both first team units have line up against each other from time to time in practice, Wulff said that he didn't plan to integrate the ones on offense versus the ones on defense until the third scrimmage.

AT THE HALFWAY point of spring ball, the Cougars are a young team that continues to show progress on defense and in the run game.

Wulff has emphasized time and time again the need to improve the level of execution on both sides of the ball and for players to step up and make plays. Wulff added that the coaches have simplified things a bit, and that has improved the level of execution the past few practices.

Walla Walla High coach Marc Yonts attended practice along with a couple of his Blue Devils players.

Graduating senior Brandon Gibson also stopped by practice, with the NFL draft just 16 days away. He chatted with several of the coaches and players, and offered some words of encouragement to a couple of the wide receivers.

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