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More pads, more hitting at WSU practice


COUGARS

It was only the third practice of the fall, and the first with shoulder pads, but as one assistant coach said before it got going, it seems like Washington State has been practicing for weeks. Or maybe it's just because we're all getting old. Whatever, we have news and notes, along with our story for tomorrow, so read on.
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• The shoulder pads came out of storage today, so the hitting – and scrimmaging – ramped up quite a bit. The full pads aren't allowed until Thursday, so no one was taking tackles to the ground, but the contact in the trenches was for real. And early on it was the defense's turn to shine. In the seven-on-seven inside run drill, the offense never really had success moving the ball, with the defensive line winning the battle at the point of attack. Near the end of practice, in the blitz drill, the offense started slowly again, but got it going as the scrimmage wore on. Jeff Tuel broke a nice run and Ricky Galvin took a draw into the secondary, where the 5-foot-8, 162-pound freshman exploded into 200-pound senior safety Chima Nwachukwu and knocked him to the ground. The final scrimmage session of the day was more to the offense's liking, with finding receivers early and Marshall Lobbestael teaming with Kristoff Williams on a nice gain. "Usually defense is always ahead of the offense," this time of year coach Paul Wulff said. But with the tackling limited to just wrapping up, the coaches can control who has success pretty well. "You get better indications when you are in live situations, which we have not been in," Wulff said. "There have been times we let plays go on for the offense when it could potentially have been a sack and things change. Right now, our offense is making some plays and our defense is as well." And not because of mistakes by the other side. "The nice thing is, when they are making plays, they are being earned," Wulff said. "The defense is there a lot of times in coverage. Defense isn't going to stop everything, but it's nice to see both sides being able to make some plays."

• The first person out to practice was Zack Williams, getting out early to practice his snapping. Williams started last year at left guard, but with the graduation of Kenny Alfred and Andrew Roxas starting the season slowly because of some nicks, Williams has been working in the middle of the offensive line. It seems to be working the more the group – from left, David Gonzales, Wade Jacobson, Williams, B.J. Guerra and Micah Hannam – plays together. As we said, at first Tuesday the d-line dominated. As the day wore on, the offensive group started to win a few more battles. ... Jamal Atofau came to Pullman from Bellevue High, where he expected to spend time in the defensive backfield with former teammate Eric Block, the Wolverines' star quarterback back in the day. But Block, who played safety while at WSU, had to hang up his pads due to a variety of injuries and illnesses over the years. Block is now helping out with the safeties, playing the role of quarterback in some drills and offering advice and encouragement during others. And those pads he hung up? Tuesday Atofau showed up at practice with Block's old shoulder pads. It was easy to tell. Atofau rolled up the back of his shirt so Block's name on the pads was visible. ... There haven't been a lot of injuries, none major, and players are starting to return. Tight end Skylar Stormo was back full go today and Roxas took some snaps. Hoffman-Ellis and defensive back Daniel Simmons continue to only do drills, while tackle Tyson Pencer, defensive tackle Justin Clayton and tight end Aaron Gehring sat out another day. ... The practicing for weeks feeling? It might be because practice is running pretty smoothly, with execution better than it was last year until later in camp. Or it may be because my legs are out of shape and 2½ hours seems like days.

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• Here is the raw version of our story that will appear in tomorrow's S-R ...

PULLMAN – One of the more intriguing aspects of early season college football practice are the position battles.

Every team has them. Two or three players square off through 10, 15, 20 practices, trying to win the starting nod and the most playing time.

Washington State University has its share this fall, but none more important for the team's success than the one going at middle linebacker.

Three players, all at varying steps of their college career, are squaring off to see who will man the middle in the opener Sept. 4 at Oklahoma State.

Will it be lightly used senior Hallston Higgins? Junior Mike Ledgerwood, who made a name for himself in last year's Apple Cup? Or will it be the prized recruit, C.J. Mizell, the freshman from Florida who sat out last year before finally deciding to play in Pullman?

"With the guys who are out here practicing, we have to formulate a two-deep some how, some way and they have to perform at a high level," said coach Paul Wulff Tuesday following the Cougars' third practice, their first with shoulder pads.

The battle really hasn't been joined fully as yet because Alex Hoffman-Ellis, penciled in to start on the weak side, has yet to go full speed due to a balky back.

With Hoffman-Ellis not scrimmaging, Ledgerwood has slid over, filling in at a position he's played in the past. That's left Higgins, who has opened eyes with his play since spring, starting, and Mizell learning the spot as the backup.

"It's not a terrible thing because we've got some depth there, which means competition is going to be good," said linebackers coach Travis Niekamp of the battle. "Guys are going to have to come out every day and have great practices."

So who will win the fight for a position Wulff terms "crucial?" Ask the three players involved and they all have different reasons why they should be the one.

"Played it all my life," Ledgerwood said. "That's the one thing I've always wanted to do in college football, play middle linebacker. My goal is to play that position."

"I bring a lot of speed to the middle linebacker position," said Higgins, who lost 12 pounds since last fall. "A lot of intensity, a lot of heart, will and I'm a headhunter. I'm going to make that hit, I'm going to get the ball down."

"I'm just going to go all out for the team and do my job every down," said Mizell. "I'll give it everything I've got."

At an athletic 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, Mizell has a lot to give. He runs better than the other candidates, but at times Tuesday that quickness got him in trouble as he overpursued and lost containment.

"He brings the athleticism you would like to see at that spot," Niekamp said. "He's young, he's got a ways to go yet. (But) he's got some really good natural instincts."

The 5-11 Higgins came into fall weighing 210 pounds, five pounds less than he weighed as a freshman out of Magnolia, Texas. This year he has a new number (switching from 53 to 35) and a new attitude.

"I'm just trying to have fun out here, honestly," he said. "I'm just trying to make the plays that I can. I'm not really worried about it being my last time too much, I thought about that already. Now I'm like 'let's go and it.' "

His first three seasons in Pullman, Higgins saw little time, playing in 35 games and making 20 tackles.

"Hallston is consistent," Niekamp said. "A lot of times guys get to that senior season and they take a step up and he's done that. He's really committed himself. He's lost some weight which is really helping his mobility and speed."

Ledgerwood is the thickest of the trio at 6-1 and 231 pounds. He's also had more experience, most of it last year. He came on strong late in the year, with 23 tackles in the final two games, including a team-high 14 against the Huskies.

"He took a huge step at the end of last year," Niekamp said. "He's on his way, if he continues to work like he's been working. He had a breakout game in the Apple Cup and I'm expecting that type of performance from him week in and week out."

So who will start?

Niekamp said there is no hurry to make a decision. If one of the three separates them self, then the decision is made. If not, the position battle may continue even into the Oklahoma State game, with the candidates all getting time.

"Now it's time to compete," Niekamp said. "Every time you're taking a rep, you better be busting your butt because it could be the one that makes the decision."

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• That's all for now. As usual, we'll be back in the morning with more ...




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Vince Grippi
Vince Grippi is a freelance local sports blogger for spokesman.com. He also contributes to the SportsLink Blog.

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