Washington State had a short practice this morning, with the emphasis on the mental more than the physical. The Cougars were in shorts, T-shirts and helmets and worked on, for some of the time, the game plan for Oklahoma State. For more on the day's workout and our defensive line preview, read on.
• As usual, we'll start with practice. There was not a lot to report other than to say the Cougars were visited by eight or nine former players, all of them, I believe, older than me. The headliner of the group was Duke Washington, inducted into the Washington State University Athletic Hall of Fame last fall (for more on Washington, check this story from last year). Each of the former Cougars said a few words to the team following practice, with one pulling out a leather helmet and putting it on his head. "Some young guys from the 40s and 50s who played here," is how coach Paul Wulff described the visitors. "That was awesome to see those guys. I had not met them before and it was great to be able introduce them to the players and to see their spirit. You look at how long ago they were here and how ... important it is, how the Cougars are still important to them. That shows you what this place means to so many people." ... With no scrimmaging, the day was devoted to individual fundamental work, special teams and game-planning. ... There were no new injuries to report and none of the injured returned to the practice field. ... There was still some mixing and matching going on with the offensive line. The past couple days Tyson Pencer has worked in with the ones at left tackle and David Gonzales has moved over to the right side. When the ones take the field, however, Gonzales is still on the left side and Micah Hannam at the right tackle. We'll let you know if that looks like it will change. ... The Cougars will spend the rest of their day having pictures taken and signing autographs at fan appreciation day. After that, they begin their usual game-week preparation. Sunday is an off day and they'll return to the practice field Monday night for a full session of game-planning without pads. ...
• Here is the raw version of our preview of the defensive line, the last of our previews ...
PULLMAN – Click on your dictionary, type in the word savage and such words as fierce, ferocious, unpolished and rugged dot the definition.
And all of them could apply to this year's Washington State University defensive line.
That might explain why the group breaks a huddle with one word: savages.
"That's how we want to play," said sophomore end Travis Long.
A new word for a new year. It's a different group with a different mindset running a different scheme this season and, Long and his mates hope, with different results.
Last year the Cougars were fourth from the bottom nationally in run defense and sixth from the cellar in passing defense and sacks, three statistical black marks that can be blamed in at least some part on disappointing play up front.
Injuries cut away at the group's core – only true freshman Long started all 12 games – and sapped its strength, physically and mentally.
Which made rebuilding the front four an off-season priority. And, so far, it seems to be working.
Senior end Kevin Kooyman, who injured his knee the second week last season, decided to come back for another year despite earning a degree. Senior tackle Bernard Wolfgramm spent the offseason toning his body, losing weight and strengthening his balky back. Junior college transfer Brandon Rankin shucked off an offer from Alabama and made his way from North Carolina to Pullman where he's gathered rave reviews.
And Long, honorable mention All-Pac-10 last year, put on a few pounds, added muscle – he raised his clean lift, where he explosively raises the weight from the floor to his chest, from 280 to 320 pounds over the summer – and came to camp ready to improve.
"I just want to be more consistent on stopping the run," he said. "I need to get more consistent (establishing) a new line of scrimmage back, getting off the ball better, making my hand placement better."
The four have blended quickly, each filling a role in the Cougars' defensive scheme. The first two weeks of practice, the group gave the offense fits.
But don’t take our word on it. Listen to the guys who benefit from it every day, the defensive backs.
"The defensive line, they've improved tremendously," said safety Tyree Toomer. "They've helped us out so much. It just makes our job so much easier."
"I can remember from previous years, the safety would be one-on-one with the running back as soon as the running back got the ball," Toomer explained. "But now, by the time we get there, he's being tackled by a d-lineman or linebacker's got to him."
"It's night and day," said cornerback Nolan Washington. "They're dominating from the ones to the twos to the threes. ... They're dominating practice. The quarterbacks can't even get a play off. That makes my job so much easier."
It also has made defensive line coach Malik Roberson's job easier as well, as he freely admits. Each player has a role, according to Roberson, and they all are performing it – in practice.
Kooyman, at 6-foot-6 and 262 pounds, is "the big strong defensive end that has to give us the push from the weak side," Roberson said.
Wolfgramm, 6-3, 285, is the nose tackle who must control the A gap, the hole between the center and guard. "We like him to be more disruptive than to just hold the A gap," Roberson said.
Rankin, 6-5, 281, is the inside pass rusher, given the freedom to attack. "His biggest role is to rush the passer," Roberson explained.
And the 6-4, 258-pound Long? He has to control the tight end's side, using his athleticism to fill many roles.
"We mesh pretty well together and seem to work well together collapsing the pocket in pass rush and getting all the gaps filled in the run," Long said. "It's kind of nice having a cohesive group."
And some depth.
"It's been nice to have a rotation in the fall camp. Guys have stayed fresher and that's one of the main reasons we've stayed healthy," Roberson said, adding "knock on wood."
But nicks and pains might not hurt as much, with the emergence of sophomore Anthony Laurenzi, freshmen Sekope Kaufusi, Justin Clayton and Toni Pole, to go along with senior Casey Hamlett and junior college transfer Steven Hoffart as backups.
"(The depth) is because we've had great leadership from our seniors in the group," Roberson said. "They've really worked hard together and worked for each other. The seniors are bringing along the younger guys, that's really important.
"Whoever the next guy is that's in, our mission never changes."
All of the hype, however, has yet to be realized on the field. For Rankin and many of the reserves, Saturday's opener at Oklahoma State will be their first taste of big time college football. And that taste is different.
"I really had no idea," Long said of the challenge. "Camp was alright, but you really have no idea until you get out there on the field."
(Height, weight, year and 2009 starts in parentheses)
Kevin Kooyman (6-6, 262, RS Sr., 1)
Casey Hamlett (6-3, 250, Sr., 8)
Bernard Wolfgramm (6-3, 285, RS Sr., 8)
Justin Clayton (6-3, 272, RS Fr., dnp)
Brandon Rankin (6-5, 281, RS Jr., dnp)
Anthony Laurenzi (6-3, 278, RS So., 5)
Travis Long (6-4, 258, So., 12)
Sekope Kaufusi (6-3, 233, RS Fr., dnp)
• That's all for today. We'll be back in the morning with our usual post. Until then ...