POST-SPRING EXAM: Building linebacker depth

PULLMAN -- In this age of specialization and substitution in college football, it's not a particularly provocative truth. Yet it is a truth nonetheless -- the more your twos and threes improve, the better your defense is going to be on Saturday afternoons. At no position at Washington State this spring was that perhaps more evident than at linebacker.

The headliner of the linebacker corps this spring was clearly Louis Bland.

He always seemed to be in on plays -- he's just got a very good nose for the football and makes his presence felt play after play.

But the true sophomore tweaked a knee towards the end of the 15-day session and became just one more of the many Cougar linebackers who lost practice time this spring.

Alex Hoffman-Ellis, the heir apparent to Greg Trent in the middle, tweaked a knee in the latter half of the spring session. Prior to that, however, he showed himself to be a fast and athletic presence in the middle.

In particular this spring, Hoffman-Ellis showed solid range, doing a very good job of hemming in the outside run.

Junior college players often play right away their first year at the D-IA level -- and the too often price is they spend that first season learning a new system and not in a position to excel until their senior year. But Hoffman-Ellis redshirted with the Cougars last year after coming over from the junior college ranks, and he looks to be further along in terms of read and react than is customary.

Andy Mattingly, who was moved from defensive end to strongside 'backer this offseason, injured a pectoral muscle in the fourth practice and was lost for the remainder of the spring.

Joshua Garrett, a 6-3 214 pound redshirt freshman walk-on from Curtis High in Tacoma, filled in for Mattingly much of the time and helped himself. He showed good instincts and might be able to help the Cougs this season.

Also expected to be key contributors and compete for starting jobs this fall are Jason Stripling and Myron Beck. Both are coming off surgery, and Stripling missed the entire spring. Beck did some drill work but was held out of contact.

Stripling is a compact, hard hitter with speed -- he showed considerable promise when he arrived as a true freshman but has not yet cashed in on his potential. Beck started nine games last year before he broke his hand, beginning the season at safety before moving to linebacker.

Kevin Baffney also may have helped himself this spring, he's not the fastest linebacker out there but he's a smart player who reads well. Meanwhile, Mike Ledgerwood and Marshal Pirtz continue to plug away. Each had their moments but overall had up and down springs.

Hallston Higgins returned for the final few practices but coming off surgery, he didn't step onto the field in football shape. By the final practice, however, he was moving around a bit better and had gotten back some of his quickness.

There were quite a few Cougar linebackers who missed time this spring who will be key contributors and/or starters in the fall. On the upside, the Cougs added a lot of depth this spring -- the backups got better. And that's one of the keys to fielding an improved defense.

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