The first practice of the 2009 season featured many of the same drills from last year. The practice structure was familiar, the pace similar. But there was a lot of differences and we're not even talking about the absence of head coach Paul Wulff. Read on for our practice report.
• The new practice jerseys have swooshes on them, for one thing. And numbers that are sewn on. But if that were the only changes, I'm sure you Cougar fans would be disappointed. There's more, including new faces (later in this post we'll share our chat with defensive end Travis Long (above), one of those new guys) and new muscles. There are competitions, intense competitions, at positions that seemed nearly bereft of players just nine months ago. And there is a new watchword: tough. It's the focus of our story in the S-R tomorrow, the unedited version of which we posted a little earlier. All of that adds up to a group of guys trying to put a 2-11 season behind them. Here's what they did Sunday in their first practice ...
• More than any position, the quarterback spot is the face of the college football team. Which is why the competition the Cougars are in the middle of interests everyone. There's senior Kevin Lopina, who battled Gary Rogers last year for the starting spot, lost, won it later, got hurt, returned and finished the season with one major high point: leading the Cougars to an Apple Cup victory – it took just 37 minutes before someone mentioned that win on the field today, with assistant head coach Chris Ball using it as an example while going through a special teams drill; sorry to digress. Anyhow, the other main competitor for the starting QB spot is sophomore Marshall Lobbestael, who spoke with the media after practice. "We're all going to compete like we did today and let the coaches make the decision," he said. "Everyone on the team trusts them." Lobbestael is coming off knee surgery, though he said it's fine. "Feels good," he said. "Got a new brace and it feels good. I was running, doing drops and stuff. I've just got to get used to doing everything. In spring I was sort of held out some drills, some running plays, but it feels good." So I guess it feels good. As for the competition, it seemed like a wash in what happened Sunday. Lopina was throwing with more accuracy in drills while Lobbestael threw the only pick in the skelly drill. However, Lobbestael also threw the only long touchdown toss, teaming up with Jeshua Anderson when the defensive back tried for a pick. ... Ball talked a little about the competition, but didn't really go into the particulars. "Competition is good, it's healthy," he said. "It makes everybody better. It makes them hold each other accountable. If you're not doing your job the next guy is. It's important. ... We've got it at the linebacker spot. We've got it at the safety spot. We've got it at the running back spot. We've got it at some places on the team and it's really going to make a difference."
• Every player who was asked said they didn't notice too much Wulff's absence – Andy Mattingly even joked "oh, he wasn't out here?" on camera. Humor seemed to be the preferred choice when answering questions as Ball said Wulff was paying the price for (Travis) Neikamp (Jody) Sears, two cougar assistants who were with Wulff at Eastern Washington. "It's one of those things," Ball said. "It hasn't affected the players. They were aware it was coming."
• One of the positions Ball mentioned when talking about competition was linebacker. With Louis Bland limited in what he could do Sunday – he did individual drills but did not take part in any skelly or shell drills – senior Jason Stripling was given the first crack at filling the weakside linebacker spot. Stripling is one of former assistant coach Leon Burtnett's Texas recruits (he's from Tyler) who, due to injuries and academic problems, has yet to pan out. A fifth-year senior, this is Stripling's last chance. He was backed up by Myron Beck. Mattingly showed his speed a couple times from the strongside spot, though it was obvious the senior was still acclimating himself back to linebacker after spending a year at defensive end. In the middle, Alex Hoffman-Ellis, the speedy junior college transfer who redshirted last year, is still holding down the middle spot, but Mike Ledgerwood, who added muscle over the summer, is battling for time. And Darren Markle showed surprising quickness in his reps.
• There is not as much competition on the defensive line, mostly because there are just not a lot of big bodies there. The injury to Cory Mackay – he's still listed on the roster and will be all year – and the inability of Qwayshawne Buckley to qualify – the freshman from California will grayshirt – has sapped the depth. Which means Long will be given every opportunity to prove he can compete at the Pac-10 level just three months after graduating from Gonzaga Prep. "I'm looking forward to the challenge," the 6-foot-4, 247-pound Long said. "The hard work that's going to come and the success that will come from that hard work." But he knows he's not in the Greater Spokane League anymore. "It's going to take some adjusting to," he said. "I'm not used to not being the biggest guy on the field. But you just have to deal with it, you've got to roll with it. ... You're in the Pac-10 now," added Long, who has been on campus for a month, taking a summer school class and getting ready. "You're playing with the best of the best." And he might just be doing that as a true freshman. Asked if that scares or excites him, Long answered, "I'd say a little bit of both. Everyone wants to play as a true freshman but at the same time, some of these guys have had multiple years to prepare for this and you've got a summer." But he knows what to do to compete. "Be physical," he said. "Be mentally tough, because all the coaches say the season is a grind and you have to be tough through the whole season."
• This and that: The Cougars got through the day injury free, though receiver Kevin Norrell left practice to take care of a jaw problem. ... Running back and kick returner Chantz Staden, who had major reconstructive knee surgery late last year, moved well and wasn't wearing a brace, just a band around his knee. There is a chance Staden could redshirt. ... Andrew Roxas is limited at practice as doctors try to find the cause of a lingering illness that has knocked him back this summer. ... Defensive backs Jay Matthews and Terrance Hayward, both coming off shoulder surgery, were in yellow jerseys. ... No, punter Reid Forrest's hands haven't grown huge. The junior was just practicing his kicking using a small, child-sized ball. It's a tool he picked up over the summer, allowing him to kick more often with less strain on his leg. And, he added, "it's a flaw revealer." Forrest has to hit the ball perfect to get it to fly. ... Senior wide receiver Reid McEllrath, who missed the spring while overseas studying, found out the two classes he needs to graduate are both only offered in the middle of football practice. He's going to leave the team to take the classes. ... Steve Broussard had his son, Steve Jr., at practice with him. The younger Broussard even wore a whistle. But he let dad coach the running backs. ... The No. 1 defensive line included Toby Turpin and Bernard Wolfgramm at the tackles along with Kevin Kooyman and Jesse Feagin at the ends. The second group had Josh Luapo and redshirt freshman Anthony Laurenzi inside with Western Washington transfer Casey Hamlett and Long at ends.
• That's it for this evening. We'll be back in the morning with our usual post. Until then …