Wulff nearing decisions; defense rises up

PULLMAN -- The first week of practice is not quite complete. The season opener is still three weeks away. The starting jobs at such positions as quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end and cornerback appear wide open. Paul Wulff is aware of all that, but the Washington State coach says he's ready to start making some decisions on players at Saturday's first major scrimmage of the fall.

"Absolutely," Wulff said after the second of two Friday practices came to an end on a cool, breezy afternoon. "This is our first true scrimmage setting. Some guys sometimes tend to ‘appear' a little bit more."

Wulff said he plans to give starters and second-string players 12-18 plays and other reserves "maybe 20-30." Admission is free at Martin Stadium at 2:30 p.m.

"We want to make sure we incorporate some special teams into the middle of it so we get some kind of sense of flow," Wulff said.

FRIDAY AFTERNOON PRACTICE REPORT:
Players and coaches have been encouraged throughout camp about the strides made by a defense that was one of the nation's worst last season. The defense's dominance at the end of Friday's practice prompted wild celebrations by defensive players and coaches alike.

"They finally made some plays," Wulff said with a smile. "The first three drives, (the offense) went right down and scored. It was good to seem them respond."

Late in the practice, the defense absolutely stuffed the offense on three straight plays matching the No. 1 offense and defense. Defensive tackle Bernard Wolfgramm tossed aside running back James Montgomery; outside linebacker Jason Stripling ran down Montgomery on the next play; and defensive end Kevin Kooyman blew past left tackle Steven Ayers to sack Kevin Lopina.

The short scrimmage-type workout concluded with a sack of Marshall Lobbestael. Whistles blew before "The Lobster" was devoured by a flock of defenders.

Earlier, Montgomery ran the ball well, and Lopina delivered some quality passes. Lobbestael and Lopina both continue to work with the 1's and 2's. In a match-up between second units, a defensive breakdown helped Lobbestael find Kevin Norrell all alone near the end zone for a touchdown pass.

Burly tight ends Andrei Lintz and Skylar Stormo, a pair of redshirt freshmen who spend some time with the 1's, held on to passes as they were crushed on plays over the middle.

Kicker Nico Grasu had another tough day, missing his first four field-goal attempts before nailing the final two. Kickoff specialist Patrick Rooney has been more consistent on field goals than Grasu, but Rooney also has struggled a bit.

THE VULNERABLE SPOTS IN WSU's defense were too numerous to count last year, but the lack of takeaways and quarterback sacks were devastating. The Cougars had just 10 interceptions, three fumble recoveries and 16 sacks. Co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball said the Cougars have designed "some creative ways" to produce more sacks. He figures more pressure on the quarterback will lead to more takeaways.

"When we were really good here, we had 30 interceptions one year and led the Pac-10 in sacks. There's a correlation there," said Ball.

The WSU football media guide lists the school record for interceptions as 26, but you get the idea.

Ball said he's "really pleased with what we're seeing" out of WSU's defense, but coaches will continue to stress the need to force turnovers. When a Lopina pass glanced off the hands of cornerback Brandon Jones in the end zone Friday, Ball screamed, "Catch that ball!"

Sporting News magazine, citing Ball's work with the WSU secondary (he's the safeties coach), lists Ball as the top position coach in the Pacific-10 Conference. Before returning to Pullman last year, Ball coached WSU's secondary from 2000-02. The Cougars piled up 56 interceptions those three years; in two of those seasons WSU won 10 games. Ball then followed Mike Price to Alabama, and stayed on with the Crimson Tide after Price left. Bama subsequently led the nation in pass defense in 2004.

NOTABLE:

  • CollegeFootballNews.com ranked the top 200 college players, and WSU senior center Kenny Alfred came in 194th. Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was No. 1. USC free safety Taylor Mays of Seattle came in second.

  • Bruce Brown, a noted motivational speaker and former college basketball coach from the Seattle area, addressed WSU players Thursday night and briefly Friday morning. Brown worked with WSU's coaches in the off-season. He was said to have been impressed by the tempo of Cougar practices and the "coaching up" from the WSU staff.

  • Cougar kickers and punters occasionally use a hand-held video camera to shoot tape of themselves. They can review the images right on the field. The Cougars have a ways to go to catch Oregon in the technology department, however. The Ducks have begun using miniature video cameras attached to the top of the quarterbacks' helmets during practice.

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