Day 13: Evaluating DE/DT/LB position battles

PULLMAN -— The Cougars took the practice field Thursday after a three-day absence and didn't lose a step on defense. Indeed, the crimson stop corps continues to impress, and has throughout spring ball. CF.C asked Paul Wulff about position battles at DE, DT and LB and recorded his thoughts. We also added quite a few of our own first-hand impressions ...

"We did some good things," Paul Wulff said on the day featuring helmets and shoulder pads only. "Defensively, we were pretty active all day and seemed to be really on top of it. That was really good to see. But at the same time they were trying to perform -- our depth at WR right now, and some mix and matching in the offensive line, affects it.

The defensive line had the offensive line's number throughout the afternoon session. Running with the 1's on the O-line were LT Micah Hannam, LG Zack Williams, C Chris Prummer, RG B.J. Guerra, and RT David Gonzales.

Usual LT Wade Jacobson was a spectator on Thursday due to leg inflammation and Andrew Roxas is sitting out the remainder of the spring with an ankle injury.

Meanwhile, the No. 1 defensive line, which put forth an impressive day, consisted of DE's Travis Long and Kevin Kooyman, DT's Brandon Rankin and Anthony Laurenzi/Justin Clayton splitting time.

Constant pressure was put on QB's Jeff Tuel and Marshall Lobbestael from the foursome, and running backs were regularly stopped at the line with Justin Clayton leading the way in that department.

HERE'S WHAT WULFF had to say on battles going on for the defensive line.

"You know they've done a good job, they're getting better," Wulff said. "It seems like they're pretty cohesive group right now, they're working well, they're getting better and better. We just want to have enough guys in there where we don't run shy. We haven't been in that situation yet where we've had enough depth in our defensive line and I think we have a shot to have some this year."

Here's CF.C's take on the DT position battle:

DT Brandon Rankin has solidified himself as a clear cut starter heading into the fall. Rankin, who originally arrived to Pullman as a DE, has made a seamless transition to tackle. He has the intangibles to be a big time contributor for the Cougs next season. Rankin has plows through the offensive line this spring.

DT Bernard Wolfgramm has come into the spring looking like a new man. Although the redshirt senior-to-be has missed significant time this spring in order to hit the books, he has been very impressive when he's been out on the field. Wolfgramm also appears to have gained some quickness back that has been absent since he injured his back. Bottom line: When lined up with Rankin, the pair have been a force to be reckoned with all spring long.

DT Anthony Laurenzi has also seen plenty of action running with the 1's and has played well. Although Laurenzi doesn't have the quickness Rankin and Wolfgramm possess, he has made an impact by getting his hands in the air and bothering the passing game. Laurenzi has had a flurry of pass deflections this spring, swatting down balls from Tuel and Lobbestael. Laurenzi has been no stranger in the "sack" department either.

Last but not least, DT Justin Clayton continues to progress this camp and today was no different. Clayton was bursting through the holes and constantly had his body on Coug RB's, stopping them cold at the line.

One of the stated goals this spring was to find a group from which WSU can rotate and still field quality players. The Cougs look this spring to have found a fairly solid foursome on the interior, with Rankin and Wolfgramm leading the way.

Here's CF.C's take on the DE position battle:

DE's Travis Long and Kevin Kooyman look to be the two men that will be the starting driving forces coming off the edge. When both are on the practice field, they are seeing virtually all the time running with the 1's -- putting heat and pressure on quarterbacks and running backs alike. Kooyman brings talent and experience, while Long has a monster body with tremendous speed.

Also seeing action has been Casey Hamlett. He's certainly made strides since last season and appears to have bulked up a little bit. Although I don't expect Hamlett to surpass the other two on the depth chart, I fully expect him to see plenty of action on the gridiron next season and be a key part of the Cougars depth.

DE Sekope Kaufusi is another guy who could definitely see some quality turns in 2010. The LB turned DE is very quick off the ball and has impressed throughout spring ball while running with the 2's. Kaufusi is nowhere near he will be physically yet, and once he gets bigger and stronger, the sky is the limit for his potential in the Crimson and Gray. But look for him and Hamlett to make an impact in rotation.

Again, WSU this spring has had a good group at d-end emerge, and look to have some depth they'll be able to rotate to without a big dropoff, with Long and Kooyman leading the pack.

ANOTHER POSITION GROUP that shined on Thursday was at linebacker – the corps had several pass deflections, did a great job of getting to the line quickly on running plays and putting pressure on Tuel as well.

The group this spring has been led by SAM Myron Beck, who came out of the gates hard and hasn't showed any signs of slowing down. With injuries to Alex Hoffman-Ellis (ankle) and Louis Bland (knee) out for the spring, the competition levels have been high with guys constantly rotating in and out at spots other than Beck's, who has solidified his spot with the 1's.

After practice Thursday, Wulff told CF.C he's been very pleased with his ‘backers this spring and Hallston Higgins was the first name mentioned.

"I've been very happy with Hallston's improvement, Mike Ledgerwood has done some good things as well," Wulff said. "Because of Alex's ankle injury, it's allowed more reps for Arthur Burns which has been needed -- and Myron has been very consistent and done a very good job. All those guys in there have done some good things."

Here's CF.C's take on the LB position battle:

There has definitely been some movement at each position other than the SAM position which has been flat-out OWNED by Myron Beck.

Beck has come out this spring with two things on his mind -- getting to the ball, and making plays. Beck has indeed been impressive throughout spring drills, with several pass deflections and constantly putting his big frame on a body. Beck has been ‘da man" at the SAM spot, and I don't expect this to change anytime soon.

AT MIKE, its been the Hallston Higgins and Mike Ledgerwood show, with both being productive.

Higgins, who had frankly become an afterthought the past few seasons, has come out of nowhere this spring. Wulff has constantly praised Higgins for the leaps he's made, and the redshirt senior has continued to fly all over the field all spring long.

Meanwhile, Ledgerwood continues to make strides himself, and is proving to be a very dependable linebacker following his late season emergence in ‘09. Between the two, this writer would have to say it's a dead even battle.

At WILL, before Alex Hoffman-Ellis got dinged up, he'd shown gains in read-recognition and decision making in coverage. Hoffman-Ellis has certainly packed on a tremendous amount of muscle, which led the way for some big time hits early in spring. He's your clear starter at the weakside spot, when he comes back healthy.

But with Hoffman-Ellis injured, it's opened the door for Higgins to also see some reps at that position, and also provided some opportunities for Arthur Burns.

Burns has made plenty of impact this spring, and has been a vocal leader when on the field. During Thursday's practice, Burns showcased that fire by shouting out calls and looked to rattle the offensive line a bit.

Burns is also a guy capable of laying a big hit, and has stood out when running with the 2's, and in his limited reps with the 1's.

Linebacker looks to be in solid hands when Hoffman-Ellis returns, and Higgins and Ledgerwood may be ready to make more noise at middle ‘backer this spring. Burns is an up-and-comer and it won't be a surprise if he takes another good-sized step this fall camp and on into the season.

AS FOR THE offense on Thursday, they were sluggish early on, but then were able to get themselves into a good rhythm towards the end of practice.

It was the Jeff Tuel - Daniel Blackledge show, with the two connecting on at least six plays for the first team offense.

The highlight was a 25-yard gainer on the sideline where Blackledge was able to escape would be tackles by a pair of defensive backs after 10 yards, and burst on through for another 15 yards or so.

RB Carl Winston (toe) returned to practice Thursday, but the majority of running back action belonged to Logwone Mitz and Chantz Staden.

Both had trouble getting through the hole with the defensive line performing so well. However, Mitz did look sharp early on with a couple 10-yard gains, including one where he made two sharp cuts and whirled his way upfield.

Former Coug great WR Brandon Gibson was on hand to witness the Thursday session. Gibson was sporting a pair of Cougar football sweats and looked to be all smiles when the news of former Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford being named his new St. Louis teammate filtered through practice.

The Cougs were in helmets and pads only Thursday for the third-straight practice, but will be going full tilt come Saturday. The spring game is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. CF.C will have a full recap. The Cougs finish out the spring session with a make-up practice early on Monday morning.

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