So, as practice days go, Tuesday's was the least focused of the spring. But don't take my word for it. That was Paul Wulff's assessment. With that as the prelude, read on for our practice report and a story on one of the spring's biggest surprises.
• Before we get into the practice report, here's the unedited version of our story for tomorrow's S-R ...
PULLMAN – Hallston Higgins trekked north from Magnolia, Texas in late 2007 hoping to follow in the cleats of another Texas linebacker then having success at Washington State University, Greg Trent.
Trent, who mentored Higgins from the start, finished his career in 2008 seventh all-time at WSU with 323 tackles. But his protégé? Three mostly unproductive seasons later, the 5-foot-11, 225-pound Higgins entered spring practice as something of an afterthought.
"A surprise has definitely been Hallston Higgins," said Paul Wulff following Tuesday's spring workout, the Cougars' 10th of 15, and the third one Wulff has singled Higgins out for praise. "He's come in and played the Mike (middle) backer and clearly played the best football he's ever played."
"Football has always been very important to Hallston," linebacker coach Travis Niekamp said, explaining Higgins rise. "He's really taken a step maturity-wise and focus-wise in being the best football player he can be."
Though Higgins has lost fat – he admits he was overweight after last year – and added muscle – a re-dedication to weight-room work helped there – he says the biggest change is in attitude – and opportunity.
"I'm embracing this whole season," Higgins said. "It might be my last go-round so I'm just focusing on giving it my all, just trying to have fun with it, being my last one and all."
And the results have been obvious for a player who has posted just 20 tackles in three seasons.
"We moved him inside to Mike, which I think is a good fit for him," Niekamp said, "and he's taken advantage of it. He's had opportunities and he's risen to the occasion. That's what you want out of all your players.
"If a guy goes down or you have an opportunity to work with the ones, you want to see those guys raise their level of play. And Hallston's absolutely done that."
With Louis Bland recuperating from knee surgery and Mike Ledgerwood suffering a concussion that forced him out of a few spring workouts, Higgins has been the man in the middle. And he says he's finally ready for it.
"Since last year I just (decided) that whatever they ask me to do, I'm going to do it to the best of my ability," Higgins said. "I've grown up, learned how to handle adversity. But it's mostly just want-to, not let anything stop me."
In the fall Bland, a two-year starter, should be back 100 percent and Ledgerwood will still be competing. So how does Higgins plan on keeping his edge?
"Keep having fun with the game," Higgins said. "That's been the main difference, me wanting to come out and practice hard every day. And me wanting to get that spot and be that guy for the team."
Though Higgins has been the biggest surprise, the linebacking corps has made strides throughout the spring, thanks in large part to a depth that Higgins exemplifies.
"Going into this season we are as talented and as deep as we've ever been," Niekamp said. "Some of that is youth, which means we're going to have some inconsistent days. For the most part they've come out and worked pretty hard."
Most of those young guys spend time together off the field after competing for playing time on it. And that won't change.
"We're still buddies, we still talk and kick it," Higgins said. "When it comes down to the field, let the best man win. We're going to be buddies off the field, regardless."
• Now back to the practice field. ... Wulff wasn't too pleased afterward, with the intensity – or lack thereof – of practice foremost in his mind, followed tightly by the rash of injuries that befell the Cougars, two things he felt are related. "It is one of those practices, you get in it and you realize, 'we've got to grind through this,' " he said. "And it was also getting to the point we get six guys nicked up, thankfully nothing serious, but that's just a prime example of not playing with great intensity. We've had two or three (total) nicked up all of our practices and we get six nicked up. Why? Just because we weren't practicing as hard and we weren't focused. It just wasn't a good day emotionally and therefore it wasn't a day we were able to grow like we wanted to." The injury list did, however. The six guys, in order of injury, were: tight end Zach Tatman, with a sprained MCL (he came out to practice late in a brace and crutches, out for the rest of spring) in his left knee; defensive tackle Brandon Rankin, who bruised his left knee (he went into the training room, was taped and returned, though he was limited the rest of the time); running back Leon Brooks, who turned his left ankle (he was retaped and practiced the rest of the day); linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis, who sprained his right ankle and had to be driven off the field; tight end Andrei Lintz, who tweaked his left hamstring and was sporting an ice bag at the end; and offensive lineman Sebastian Valenzuela, who left practice near the end with an undisclosed injury. ... Two other injuries suffered in Saturday's scrimmage might be worse than they looked. Center Andrew Roxas suffered a high ankle sprain and will miss the rest of the spring and safety Jay Matthews re-injured his surgically repaired shoulder and will have an MRI this week. ... One piece of positive injury news. It looks as if offensive lineman Zack Williams (shoulder sprain) will be able to return for at least some of next week's practices.
• If I had to use one word to describe practice, it would be blah. Sure there was some exciting plays – four examples: Darren Markle picked off a Marshall Lobbestael pass in the flat and returned it for a touchdown; Lobbestael teamed with Gino Simone for a long touchdown pass; Higgins wrested the ball from Logwone Mitz and returned it for a touchdown, where co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball delivered a big celebratory hit; and Jeff Tuel found Jared Karstetter for a long touchdown pass – but for most of the day the drills and team sessions were somewhat lifeless. "We had some guys miss with class work and those type of things in addition to (the players hurt)," Wulff said. "We put a lot of stuff in on defense. It just wasn't a good day, you know? It was our least-focused day. We came out flat and therefore I don't know if we got a lot better today." ... One group that did better was the kickers. Though their session was cut at the end – Wulff dropped some of practice due to the injuries and intensity – they were perfect in the first session early in practice, with Nico Grasu hitting 3 of 3, Blake Dunn both of his attempts and Alex Gauper his one, all from varying distances.
• That's it for this evening. We will be back in the morning with more. Until then ...