Only six starting jobs set as Cougs pad up

PULLMAN -- Washington State coaches say only six players have pretty much locked up starting jobs for the Cougars' Sept. 5 opener against Stanford. Meanwhile, in Thursday afternoon's workout, two true freshmen continued to work with the ones and twos. And the catch of the day belonged to a senior with last name more known for throwing the ball.

The half-dozen Cougars who have effectively secured starting nods are safeties Xavier Hicks and Chima Nwachukwu, cornerback Brandon Jones, outside linebacker Andy Mattingly, defensive end Kevin Kooyman and center Kenny Alfred.

Jones, a fourth-year junior from Seattle, is the newest face in that bunch. He redshirted last season after transferring to WSU from Cal.

Alfred, an all-conference honorable mention pick in the Pac-10 last year and a Rimington Award candidate, missed spring ball after undergoing surgery for a painful, lingering hip condition.

"Kenny's lost some weight and he's moving clearly as well as he's ever moved," Wulff said.

Numerous players and coaches say football strength coach Darin Lovat's work with the team in the offseason has been a key factor in a dramatic drop in injuries compared to last year's camp. Lovat, a former UNLV player who worked with head coach Paul Wulff at Eastern Washington, was hired last fall.

WULFF SAID AFTER Thursday afternoon's practice that he was encouraged not only by improved play from the offensive line, but also by improved blocking from wide receivers like Daniel Blackledge and Jeshua Anderson.

"We've challenged them all (wide receivers) a little bit … there's talent here that hasn't played to their ability," Wulff said. "A lot of that has to do with a lack of experience, but we've got some experience. Not a lot."

Blackledge drew enthusiastic cheers from teammates when he gave a superb effort blocking cornerback Daniel Simmons downfield to help fellow receiver Kevin Norrell pick up extra yardage on a short pass. Earlier, Norrell made a great adjustment to haul in a Marshall Lobbestael pass thrown behind him.

Senior tight end Tony Thompson, the son of legendary quarterback Jack Thompson, turned in the catch of the day, throwing up one hand straight over his head to spear a high pass from Kevin Lopina over the middle. Anderson also made a brilliant grab, hauling in a low bullet thrown by Lobbestael.

The No. 2 defense, working against the No. 2 offense, shined on back-to-back plays when tackle Dan Spitz and linebacker Hallston Higgins wrapped up running back Marcus Richmond behind the line of scrimmage.

For the second straight day, wide receiver Gino Simone and defensive end Travis Long were the only true freshmen practicing with the 1's and 2's. Simone has spent some with the starters. "He's been in a good high school system (Skyline's offense) that is similar to ours," Wulff said. "He's very mature in how he handles things."

ON THE INJURY FRONT, three players recovering from offseason operations -- defensive tackle Bernard Wolfgramm, outside linebacker Myron Beck and wide receiver Johnny Forzani -- sat out Thursday. Wulff said nothing appears serious.

Defensive end Jesse Feagin rested after some cramping problems Wednesday. Wideout Jared Karstetter returned to action after resting a bruised hip. Offensive lineman Andrew Roxas remains out with an undiagnosed illness. Wulff said blood work is being done.

NOTABLES:

  • Sophomore safety Eric Block, who missed two days of practice due to a death in the family, practiced with the 2's after working out with players lower on the depth chart when he returned to camp Wednesday.

  • Reid Forrest continues to boom punts high and far. Apple Cup field-goal hero Nico Grasu has been inconsistent, showing a tendency to yank some kicks to the left.

  • Wulff said former Cougar star Chad Eaton is tentatively set to work in the weight room and in WSU's athlete mentoring program while he works to complete his degree over the next two semesters. Wulff said Eaton, a former NFL player, may pursue coaching after graduating. The 37-year-old Eaton recently moved his family from Redmond to Pullman. He's attended every practice this week, but said he doesn't want to be a distraction and respectfully declined an interview request.

  • After two days of split-squad workouts, the Cougars get back together again Friday for the first two-a-day session. A scrimmage will be held during Saturday's practice. Admission is free at 2:30 p.m. at Martin Stadium.

    FOR MORE INSIGHTS from Thursday afternoon's practice, click to the CF.C front-page story "Tardy says WSU OL has gone from nice to nasty."

  • Cougfan Top Stories