COUGARS • UPDATED: 8:15 P.M.
Only one more day of true practice before Saturday, so what happened today on Rogers Field held increased importance for WSU. Given that, we have some comments from coach Paul Wulff on the fine-tuning that was taking place.
• There was one 10-minute skelly drill in which the Washington State quarterbacks really shined Wednesday. As you may know, skelly is a passing drill, with everything except the two lines. So there is now rush. Still, the defense usually is able to force a mistake or two with good coverage. Except Wednesday, the quarterbacks were on target. With every pass. A defender on the inside shoulder, the ball was on the outside one. One hole in the zone coverage, the ball showed up there. Not until the final pass of the drill, a goal-line attempt that went too high, did the offense fail to make the connection. ... The best catch of the day was turned in by Jeshua Anderson, who went high to gather in a pass, then fell to the turf with a thud. It was the same type of fall that resulted in his strained hamstring a couple weeks ago, so it was little wonder when he arose from the turf and jogged back to the huddle, there was a cheer from both sides of the ball. ... Kevin Norrell missed another day with the flu, though he was around in street clothes and should be back tomorrow. "It will affect his play because he hasn't practiced the past two days," Wulff said. "Whenever guys miss practice, they don't play better on Saturday." ... There are five walk-ons practicing with WSU after going through tryouts. They are: Cornerback Anthony Martinez, a junior from Riverside, Calif.; safety Trase Pickering, from Redmond; defensive linemen Zach Brevick, a freshman from Snoqualmie, and Matthew Bock, a freshman from Santa Margarita, Calif.; and wide receiver Cory Burk, a sophomore from Bothell. ...UPDATE: Safety Tyree Toomer had successful surgery on his torn pectoral muscle Wednesday and will be out 3-to-4 months, according to sports information director Bill Stevens. That means this season is lost. He has his redshirt season left, so he'll use that.
• Don't be surprised if there are some late changes to the defense. Wulff alluded to Louis Bland playing middle linebacker some Tuesday and Bland filled that position with the starters for all of Wednesday's practice. The sophomore, who stands just 5-foot-10, earned a reputation as a playmaker last year, when he started the second half of the season as an outside backer. But he's best attribute, according to the coaches, is an ability to be in the right place on every play. And that's highly prized in WSU's scheme. Still, it's obvious Alex Hoffman-Ellis – and to a lesser degree, Darren Markle – is valued by the staff. "We're trying to get the best 11 out there," Wulff said. "And, you know, our most experienced guys too. Alex is right there and could be starting and he's going to play a ton, for sure. He was progressing well and then, when he hurt his foot, it hurt him when he missed those practices. It just slowed his progression down a little." Still, Wulff expects big things from Hoffman-Ellis, who redshirted last season. "I think he'll come a long ways after he plays his first game," he said. ... Chima Nwachukwu spent most of practice at cornerback – Aire Justin was back from his bout of flu by the way – and LeAndre Daniels spent the time at safety. It seems the Cougars want to put some size at those positions to battle Toby Gerhart and the Stanford rushing attack. ... The defensive tackle rotation has been altered some this week as well, though it may be more of a temporary thing. The biggest change is junior Toby Turpin has been running with the twos and threes, after struggling at times the last few practices. He seemed energized, though, in the end of practice scrimmage, disrupting two consecutive plays by getting into the gap quickly.
• I've been thinking about this for a long time and decided tonight is the right time to write it. I've noticed a lot of optimism out there and, though not one to rain on someone's parade, felt it might behoove me to try to temper some of it. OK, I know we've written a lot about WSU's improvements, and they are to be seen by anyone looking. But, to be fair, I feel like I need to point out a few areas where even more improvement needs to be made before WSU returns to the glory years – you know, those three years early in this decade. So here they are ... Team speed: This is especially glaring on defense. Great defenses are fast, play fast, run to ball fast, close holes fast. WSU isn't fast enough yet. There are a couple guys who really run – maybe this is one reason Hoffman-Ellis is so prized – but as a group, the Cougars need to get faster to move up the Pac-10 ladder. As a corollary, the defensive coaches are always urging their players to sprint to the ball. That's an effort thing that can be controlled, unlike a player's speed. The idea is, if you go 100 percent to the ball, good things happen. See how well they do this Saturday. ... Playmakers: Or lack of same. Ask any college defensive coach and, if they are honest, they'll admit there are few Cougars that strike fear in their hearts. James Montgomery might be one of those guys. Maybe Gino Simone. Anderson if he stays healthy. Jared Karstetter if he keeps improving. But one coach who I know said there is no one on this team he would roll his coverage to stop, not like teams had to when WSU had a Jason Hill or Devard Darling, players like that. … Depth at key positions: This is obvious. Though it's improving, there are a few players who, if they went down, the Cougars would be in a world of hurt. There just isn't a qualified backup. But, of all the problems WSU has, it seems this one could disappear first. Some of the freshmen who are trying to redshirt this season have the potential to blossom next year into adequate backups, then move up the ladder as others graduate. ... OK, that's it. I admit there are probably more areas of worry, and someone with a more nuanced football eye could point them out, but these are the ones that have been most glaring to me as I watch practice.
• That's it for tonight. We'll be back tomorrow morning with our usual links and we hope to have another surprise post. Until then …