PRACTICE REPORT: Special teams focus

PULLMAN -- Special teams, anything but on Saturday in the opener, continued as a major area of focus today for the Cougs. The practice session also provided an opportunity for redshirt frosh Jay Matthews to get some work not only with the 2's, but also with the No. 1 defense.

Not much has been written about Jay Matthews -- he redshirted last year and was injured both during spring ball and for much of fall camp. But Cougar coaches told CF.C earlier this year to keep an eye out for him when he gets healthy. A safety who can play the run like a linebacker, he's capable of making some positive contributions this season.

With some players out with injury or illness, it provided the opportunity for Matthews and Terrance Hayward to see in increased amount of time both with the 2's and even some reps with the 1's. Co-defensive coordinator Jody Sears said it also allows the players to stay fresh on what he said was a tough practice for the team.

"We had a good practice today because it was hard and kids got after it really hard. We put a lot of stress on them, put them in some tough situations," said Sears.

Sears also said the Cougs have had good back-to-back practices on Tuesday and Wednesday.

"As preparation goes I feel like we're in good shape," said Sears.

MEANWHILE, CORNERBACK Aire Justin sat out practice with a leg injury. DT Dan Spitz, OL Sebastian Valenzuela and walk-on QB Zach Gavin missed Wednesday's session with the flu. While some Cougar players have been fighting it the past week, WSU has said none of the player cases have been the H1N1 strain.

A POSITIVE RETURN note for WSU -- the return of WR Daniel Blackledge who had been out with the flu.

Blackledge today looked like he didn't miss a step, deftly snaring footballs from both QB's Kevin Lopina and Marshall Lobbestael.

WR Jeffrey Solomon had an unbelievable diving catch late in practice while in with the second team. Lobbestael threw a smart ball where only his receiver could get it, and Solomon made the play against Matthews in coverage.

ON DEFENSE TODAY, linebacker Louis Bland (knee) was suited up but did not participate in his second consecutive day of practice. Bland, who came out briefly in the game against Stanford, is battling soreness in his knee, which was taped heavily by team trainers.

Sears said Wednesday that he thinks Bland will be fine and barring setback, should be ready to go against Hawaii.

"I think it's more or less a preventative thing since he took a lot of hits on Saturday. We want to get him healed up a little bit so we can hopefully get him some snaps tomorrow and he will be ready to go on Saturday," said Sears.

SPECIAL TEAMS CONTINUED to see a good portion of practice devoted to their cause, with Wednesday focusing on kick return coverage. After practice, Wulff said Cougs are continuing to make strides but more work remains.

"With our depth on special teams we're still working through it, it doesn't take much to make a mistake when you have a ball carrier that can really run as the kid from Stanford could," said Wulff.

TOWARD THE LATTER stages of practice, the Cougs worked on the running game in 11-on-11 drills. James Montgomery and Dwight Tardy continue to get the bulk of the carries and looked solid. Montgomery said based on how practice has gone this week, he's confident the Cougs' ground attack will be ready to take on an untested Hawaii defense.

"We're feeling pretty confident," said Montgomery. "We had a couple miscues in the first game but we've had a good couple days of practice I think we're ready to go and show something good on Saturday.

"I feel like we should be able to operate against any team we play -- they're just another opponent."

THE HIGHLIGHT TODAY came after the second team went three and out against the second team defense. It set up K Nico Grasu for a longish field goal attempt.

Grasu lined up for the 52-yard boot, and nailed an absolutely gorgeous ball that sailed straight through the uprights with plenty of room to spare. Such was his teammates' celebration for Grasu, Wulff decided to end practice on that high note.

Backup safety Eric Block will not play according to published reports, having yet to be cleared from his concussion and shoulder stinger. Block suffered the injury on a monster hit this past Saturday that knocked a Stanford receiver out of the game.

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