WSU getting healthier at another position?

WSU COACH PAUL WULFF said the Cougs might return a defensive back before the end of the season. Plus, the offensive tackle situation remains unclear, while the head man also comments on some redshirting players.

The focus on much of WSU's injury problems has been on the offensive line. After all, it's a group that was missing six guards as recently as two weeks ago.

But the offensive line is not the only unit for the Cougars that has been forced to transition because of injury problems. WSU (1-6), which plays Notre Dame (5-2) at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in San Antonio on NBC, also has suffered through plenty of injuries in the defensive backfield.

Redshirt freshman Daniel Simmons, who started four games at right cornerback, suffered a season-ending broken leg Oct. 12 against Arizona State. HREF=//>Wulff contemplated moving junior Chima Nwachukwu back to cornerback again, where he started in 2007 and the first two games of the season, but instead turned to 17-year-old Terrance Hayward.

When he signed with the Cougars in 2008 out of Culver City, Calif., an area that has produced several WSU players in recent years, Wulff felt he was a "hidden gem" who might have been missed because some colleges thought he was a junior.

"Terrance Hayward for a redshirt freshman is still doing some really good things," Wulff said during his Thursday news conference. "He's a smart kid who will keep getting better and better."

THE COUGARS REGAINED, at Cal, some depth behind Hayward and junior Brandon Jones at cornerback. Sophomore Aire Justin, who started six games last season, fully practiced and got into the game against the Bears last Saturday after battling a quadriceps strain most of the season.

"Aire Justin finally got back and will do some good things for us," Wulff said.

Nwachukwu and senior Xavier Hicks have been mainstays at safety this year. They lost some competition and perhaps the flexibility to keep Nwachukwu at cornerback after some injuries occurred, though.

Sophomore Tyree Toomer suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle before the season and is redshirting. But redshirt freshman LeAndre Daniels might be able to return before the end of the year. Daniels has not played since suffering a broken leg Sept. 12 against Hawaii.

Wulff still classified Daniels' return as questionable, but added there's "hope for us" he might be back for the Nov. 21 game against Oregon State or the following week for the Apple Cup in Seattle.

THE OFFENSIVE LINE continues to adjust. The interior of the line is set with senior Kenny Alfred at center, and sophomore B.J. Guerra and junior Zack Williams at guard. Wulff said both "should be fine" in their second week back from injuries.

Both tackle positions remain unsettled. Junior Micah Hannam, who has started every game, and sophomore Steven Ayers are battling for the right-tackle spot. Redshirt freshman Tyson Pencer and true freshman Alex Reitnouer are vying to start at left tackle.

Wulff said both Ayers and Pencer "are still a little gimpy." Pencer injured an ankle against ASU, while Ayers played for the first time in a 49-17 loss last week against California since suffering a sprained ankle Sept. 26 at USC. Wulff said both will be monitored during practice today and their health might determine who starts.

The 6-foot-5, 258-pound Reitnouer was tabbed for a redshirt until massive injuries forced him into the lineup. He has started two games.

"He has to battle a lot just because of his strength level," Wulff said. "He's done some nice things mentally to fight through mistakes and keep competing."

WULFF SAID THE THEORY that the Irish's defense is porous because it ranks 117th among 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in passing yards allowed is not true. That statistic can be a little deceiving as it is dependent on how often teams pass the ball, but Notre Dame still allows 8.2 yards per passing attempt.

"The thing about them is they'll give up some yards in the middle of the field," he said. "But they get really stingy down in the red zone."

Wulff said Notre Dame typically plays a "fire zone" defense that limits the amount of big plays the Irish surrender. He said the defense also stunts, a scheme that is designed to confuse blockers by using a pair of players who exchange roles, about 75 percent of the time.

THE COUGARS HAVE 18 SCHOLARSHIP true freshmen this year, including Class of 2008 holdovers Tim Hodgdon, an offensive lineman, and Reitnouer. Five of those players -- defensive line Travis Long, Reitnouer, wide receiver Gino Simone, quarterback Jeff Tuel and running back Carl Winston -- have played this season.

Wulff was asked which players have impressed him the most among the freshmen on scout team. The majority of redshirting players are on the defensive side and Wulff started there with linebacker Sekope Kaufusi.

"Kaufusi is a hybrid linebacker, rush end," he said. "He could probably play this year."

Wulff said he also is excited about the other redshirting players on defense -- linebackers Andre Barrington and Darren Markle, defensive linemen Justin Clayton and Jordan Pu'u-Robinson and defensive backs Jamal Atofau, Anthony Carpenter, Casey Locker and Nolan Washington.

"All those freshmen have done some really good things," he said.

On the offensive side, Wulff mentioned redshirting junior Andrew Roxas, who started eight games last season before coming down with viral hepatitis. Roxas expected to replace Alfred next season. With the exception of running back Arthur Burns, the rest of the redshirting players are offensive linemen: Hodgdon, William Prescott and Sebastian Valenzuela. Wulff noted that Prescott has lost about 30 unwanted pounds since he arrived as a 305-pounder and "looks really good."

  • Sophomore Alex Hoffman-Ellis is the "leading candidate at this point" to start at middle linebacker, Wulff said. Hoffman-Ellis is coming back from a staph infection. Another sophomore, Mike Ledgerwood, who started in his place the last two games, is the other possibility.

  • Wulff does not anticipate the 4:30 p.m. start against Notre Dame creating an issue for his players. He said his players generally are practicing during that time of the day.

    "I think if the game was in the morning ... I think it would be a bigger issue," he said, adding that 60 players will travel for the game.

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