Wulff sees maturing talent on defensive line

THE COUGARS ONLY have one veteran on the defensive line -- Toby Turpin -- but Washington State had coach Paul Wulff believes the group's experience this year will be rewarded in the future. Plus, Wulff talks about Jeff Tuel's health, other injuries, and recruiting.

Washington State lacks experience and depth in areas throughout its football program.

But even based on that criteria, the defensive line stands out.

The Cougars have started four linemen at times during the season who have not seen a snap against Pac-10 competition before this year. That was not the case Saturday as junior Toby Turpin was the starting defensive tackle, but the other three starters -- ends Casey Hamlett and Travis Long and tackle Anthony Laurenzi -- did not play for the team last year.

It is not a situation that Wulff enjoys. As with most people in his profession, Wulff said during his Sunday news conference that he would prefer playing veterans. Instead, Long has started every game as a true freshman out of Spokane's Gonzaga Prep, while redshirt freshmen Laurenzi and Dan Spitz also have started at times. Hamlett, a junior, transferred from Western Washington after its program disbanded.

"It's tough to swallow as a coach to have to play those young guys," Wulff said. "But it's only going to make them better and better."

WULFF SAID HE particularly is impressed with the three freshmen. This is his 10th year guiding a program between Eastern Washington and WSU, and Wulff said that has given him enough time to see how players develop based on performances early in their careers.

"There's a lot of nice things we see out there," he said. "I see these guys being big impact guys."

The trio have been thrust into playing because of injuries and few remaining players from the 2005-06 recruiting classes. Turpin is the only remaining defensive lineman in the program from either of those years. He has battled Spitz throughout the season for starts.

Long leads the defensive line with 40 tackles and six tackles for loss, while his two sacks place him in a tie Hamlett and Turpin for the team-high. The 6-foot-6, 268-pound Spitz has 16 tackles (two for loss) and a sack. Wulff felt Spitz showed some progress rushing the passer against the Bruins.

"There were times he got in the face of the quarterback," he said. "He's so long that his wingspan creates issues."

THE YOUTHFUL DEFENSIVE line might stay in place when WSU (1-9 overall, 0-7 conference) plays its final home game of the season Saturday against Oregon State (7-3, 5-2). Wulff said junior defensive tackle Bernard Wolfgramm remains questionable with a nerve problem in his back.

Wolfgramm is among several players who are questionable, including junior safety Chima Nwachukwu (ankle), senior tight end Tony Thompson (concussion) and true freshman quarterback Jeff Tuel (kneecap).

Wulff said Tuel, who sustained a subluxed right kneecap Nov. 8 at Arizona, has seen his recovery slowed. If Tuel is unable to play, sophomore Marshall Lobbestael or senior Kevin Lopina would start. But Wulff said a decision on which one would not be made for at least another day.

LOBBESTAEL STARTED AGAINST UCLA and threw interceptions in each of WSU's first three possessions. He completed just 2 of 6 passes for 6 yards before he was replaced by Lopina.

"Kind of like we thought, Marshall has some hurdles to overcome mentally," said Wulff, referring to Lobbestael's return after suffering a serious knee injury left knee last year at OSU. "He works as hard as anyone on this football team. He's got to gain trust in himself and his football team."

Wulff noted that former USC standout and Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer struggled after returning from a similar injury. He said Lobbestael just needs to get comfortable in the pocket again.

"It's just trusting the protection and having the patience to sit in there," Wulff said.

LOPINA, WHO HAD not played since he started Sept. 12 against Hawaii, relieved Lobbestael and completed 7 of 14 passes for 102 yards and a touchdown.

"He's quite rusty," Wulff said. "To come out there and do what he did in a live situation ... I was proud of him."

Lobbestael's interceptions helped UCLA build a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Even though he felt his defense played well early, Wulff said the turnovers had an impact.

"Our poor execution on offense early stymied any early momentum we had," he said. "As the game went along, we probably lost some confidence."

Wulff again reiterated that he does not feel any of the players are quitting. He has maintained throughout the season that the players and coaches have had great attitudes even as the Cougars finish out one of the worst seasons in program history.

"I thought our players played hard," Wulff said after reviewing game tape. "Not that it changed my mind, but it confirmed that."

  • Wulff was pleased with the performance of his special teams. UCLA's Terrence Austin and Sean Westgate combined for 30 yards on four punt returns. Austin's two kickoff returns averaged 22 yards.

    WSU junior Reid Forrest averaged 50.3 yards on six punts. When asked if anyone has played better on his team than Forrest this year, Wulff cited only senior center Kenny Alfred.

    "Reid is very, very good," Wulff said. "Whatever we call upon him to do, he does. The game is very important to him."

  • As previously reported on CF.C, Wulff said there are "five for sure" commitments that have been approached by other schools. Wulff cannot mention names of recruits until signing day in February, and he declined to name the programs pursuing his athletes. He said he was not aware of any further commits being approached by other coaches since he made his remarks.

  • Wulff said he anticipates signing three to four junior college transfers in this recruiting class. He signed five in the 2008 class and just two -- defensive end Brandon Rankin and tight end Peter Tuitupou -- in the '09 class. Rankin is expected to enroll in January and would become one of those 3-4 for '10, while Tuitupou left school back in January shortly after enrolling to pursue a religious mission.

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