SCRIMMAGE 2: Wulff pleased with Cougs

PULLMAN -- With injuries piling up at the linebacker position, Cougar coaches decided to reduce the risk for more damage by turning the offense's focus in Saturday's scrimmage away from the ground and toward the air. The result was a double positive. The linebacking corps looked to come out unscathed and the Cougars' passing game, which has struggled so far this spring, was sharp.

Head coach Paul Wulff said he was most encouraged by the limited number of mental miscues by his players, and took that as a sign that they are continuing to grow and get better. Wulff praised receiver Kevin Norrell and quarterback Kevin Lopina for their work and said that the play of the defensive line against the pass was encouraging after spending so much of this spring season defending against the run.

Eight different receivers – led by Norrell (5 catches for 50 yards) and Jared Karstetter (4 for 66 yards) – caught passes from Lopina and deep backup Dan Wagner who is filling time for injured Marshall Lobbestael and J.T. Levenseller.

Lopina had his best outing of the spring, completing 12-of-17 passes for 162 yards. He averaged over 9.5 yards per completion, fired a touchdown pass to Johnny Forzani and tossed no interceptions. He looked comfortable under pressure, and even took a couple "sacks" instead of making an ill advised throw.

The first drive by the first-team offense would see the longest play of the day, a 36-yard pass play from Lopina to sophomore-to-be Karstetter, who made a nice grab along the sidelines. The O collected another 23 yards on the series before wrapping things up with a field goal.

On the first-team's second drive, the offense was efficient, with Norrell working the middle of the field for a couple of nice receptions. One play was worthy of the highlight reel, when Norrell went high between two defenders to get a pass from Lopina. The drive would culminate in a 7-yard touchdown pass to Forzani in the back of the end zone.

The second team offense struggled against the first-team defense, which forced three turnovers despite playing without the likes of Andy Mattingly, Louis Bland, Alex Ellis-Hoffman and Jason Stripling.Linebackers coach Travis Niekamp praised the young group's performance.

"Without seeing the tape, I thought it was pretty clean," he said. "I was really proud of the guys. This whole last week we got a lot better as far as cleaning stuff up schematically. I was pretty tickled with them, especially with all the shakeup we've had." Niekamp mentioned Mike Ledgerwood, Josh Garrett and Kevin Baffney for stepping up nicely while seven of their linebacking mates are sidelined with injuries. Two of those players, Stripling and Halston Higgins, have returned from shoulder injuries, but still are 2 to 3 weeks away from playing during full contact portions of practice.

Meanwhile, the defensive line was relentless, with three players coming up with sacks on the day. They are Josh Luapo, Anthony Laurenzi and Western Washington transfer Casey Hamlett, who had two sacks. Wulff singled out Hamlett for praise after the practice. On the opposite end of the defensive line, Cory Mackay deflected two passes, one which landed in the arms of fellow defensive tackle Dan Spitz for the second interception of practice. Spitz has gotten more reps with the ones in Toby Turpin's absence, and often is worked into the defensive tackle rotation when Luapo needs someone to spell him and on obvious passing downs.

NOTABLE NOTES:

• Running back James Montgomery was held out from practice as a precautionary measure with a sore shoulder, but Wulff said that Mongomery could have practiced if they wanted him to. Wulff commented that Montgomery is a great all-around back that performs well in all facets of the position.

• Without Montgomery, the run game struggled on Saturday, netting just 52 yards on 18 carries. Dwight Tardy only had two attempts, and tripped on one run where he had some daylight in front of him. He spent most of practice on the sideline with a small ice pack on his knee, but Wulff didn't think it was anything serious. Leading the running backs was Logwone Mitz, with 25 yards on 7 carries.

• Linebacker Louis Bland will be out the rest of spring practice and most of summer with a knee sprain, and showed up to the scrimmage with a large brace and crutches.

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