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WSU's linebacker corps deeper this season

Andy Mattingly will have an MRI after suffering an injury on Wednesday and could miss the rest of spring practice.  (File / The Spokesman-Review)
Andy Mattingly will have an MRI after suffering an injury on Wednesday and could miss the rest of spring practice. (File / The Spokesman-Review)
COUGARS

We were waiting to hear some news concerning the linebacker position before we could post this, our position preview. The question was answered, the story is done, though not edited, and you can read it on the link.
••••••••••

• Here's the preview on the linebackers …

PULLMAN – At this point last season, the Washington State Cougars felt pretty good about their linebacking corps.

Three seniors were set to start, with Greg Trent, a captain entering his fourth year as a starter, anchoring the middle. By the end of the 2-11 season, however, only Trent was still playing consistently. Younger players were counted on to carry the load.

Which is why, after saying goodbye to a senior group that played in nearly 100 games, linebackers coach Travis Niekamp could say, when speaking about this year's unit, "we've got more depth all the way across the board."

"That's forced more competition," Niekamp continued. "It's forced more accountability, more ownership from all the guys, even guys who are running with the ones right now.

"There's no job that's solidified yet. There's no guarantees who's going to be starting two weeks from now."

Or at what position.

One of the guys who came on strong last year, then-freshman Louis Bland, spent spring practice running with the ones at the will, or weakside, spot.

But Bland, who had 55 tackles, nine for loss – none bigger than two late in the Apple Cup win – and two sacks, dinged a knee the last week of spring. He suffered a couple setbacks in the summer, saw senior Jason Stripling enter fall camp as the starter, and now is backing up at both outside spots.

Which is all part of the Cougars' philosophy of trying to put the best 11 players on the field at all times.

"The guys who are going to be our best three linebackers," Niekamp said, regardless of position. "Those are going to be the ones that are starting."

More than likely one of those will be senior Andy Mattingly (above).

After a less-than-a-year experiment at defensive end, Mattingly is back at the sam, or strongside, position, running with tight ends, forcing the run and blitzing when called upon.

It was as a blitz-specialist that brought Mattingly to everyone's attention two years ago. Coming through holes designed for his skills – and often cleared by Trent – Mattingly had 91 tackles and eight sacks as a sophomore. Last year, trying to learn a new position, the Mead High graduate was limited to one sack and 44 tackles.

"Very," said Mattingly, laughing, when asked if he was glad to be back. "I'm having a lot of fun. I feel real comfortable and I'm just really excited for this year."

In large part because of the know-how earned last year.

Niekamp can go down a list of players with experience, from Mattingly to Bland, from Stripling to Myron Beck, who is still recovering slowly from back surgery. Depth at each position. But every group needs leaders.

"I've got a couple guys I want to hang my hat on," Niekamp said, though he wouldn't name them.

It looked as if, in the spring, Alex Hoffman-Ellis was the guy WSU was hanging with as Trent's replacement in the middle. The sophomore junior college transfer, who redshirted last year, has only two years of football experience – one prep, one JC – but has as much speed as anyone in the front seven.

He just hasn't been able to show it, hurting a knee in the fall and missing practice recently with a foot problem.

"Alex was having a great camp, he was really progressing," Niekamp said. "I'm expecting some big things from him once he gets healthy."

If Hoffman-Ellis can't go in the Sept. 5 opener vs. Stanford, true freshman Darren Markle, from Mountain View High in Meridian, Idaho, may start.

"What Darren's been able to do so far as a true freshman is really pretty remarkable," Niekamp said.

If he's one of the best three, the coach said, he'll play.

"We've got a ways to go yet to find out who those three are," Niekamp said. "But I've got a lot better pool this year than what I did last year."

•••

The depth

As determined by me, so take it for what it's worth …

(Height, weight, year and 2008 starts in parentheses)

Strongside

Andy Mattingly (6-4, 249, Sr., 3)

Louis Bland (5-10, 202, So., 9)

Middle

Alex Hoffman-Ellis (6-1, 233, RS So., dnp)

Darren Markle (6-1, 224, Fr., dnp)

Weakside

Jason Stripling (5-11, 242, RS Sr., 0)

Myron Beck (6-foot, 209, RS Jr., 9)

•••

• That's it for now. We'll be back soon with our practice report. It's pretty interesting. Until then …




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Vince Grippi





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