PULLMAN – Paul Wulff returned to Washington State University’s football practice Wednesday. It rained. He denied any correlation.
“It’s great to be back,” Wulff said after the wet morning practice, the first of split-squad workouts WSU held. “It’s fun to be back with the guys.”
The Cougars’ head coach missed his team’s first three 2009 workouts, forced by the NCAA to distance himself from players as part of punishment for violations while he was Eastern Washington University’s coach.
The sunshine returned in the afternoon when the top two depth chart groups hit the field and Wulff’s outlook mirrored the weather.
“They have a workmanlike attitude,” Wulff said after watching the two-hour practice. “Everyone’s out here to work to get better. They’ve done a good job of turning the page and getting rid of all the drama that was with us in the past.”
Wulff observed a defense that took the drama out of the end-of-practice scrimmage after first giving up a sustained drive capped by a Kevin Lopina touchdown pass to Daniel Blackledge.
In the next four offensive possessions, the defense forced a turnover, then made three consecutive third-down stops. The effort came from a group that yielded 570 points, the most in the nation, last season.
“We’ve got a lot of leadership … and we’re all coming together as a defense to make a stronger unit,” said senior safety Xavier Hicks, who made an acrobatic interception during an early scrimmage session, sitting in the middle of the field and jumping up to snag Lopina’s pass.
Such plays were rare last season – WSU forced just 13 turnovers – in part because of mental lapses and assignment failures.
“Last year it was a new system that we all had to learn,” Hicks said. “We improved a lot in the spring and we just carried it over to fall camp.”
“We’ve pulled back and tried to simplify things for them,” said Wulff after the defense, out of position often last season, went the entire practice with only one correction for being in the wrong spot before the snap.
“We expect them to be a lot better and I think they expect themselves to be a lot better,” Wulff said.
In search of improvement, WSU split the squad, sending the freshmen and others further down the depth chart out early and saving the afternoon for the top two units. Only two true freshmen, receiver Gino Simone and defensive end Travis Long, were out late.
“It’s a great honor, obviously, that they feel I have the ability to come out and work with these older guys,” said Simone, who helped Skyline High to the State 4A title last year. “I think it’s due to the effort I’ve been putting forth and they’re seeing that. I’m just going to continue that through camp and just keep working as hard as I can on every rep.”
More repetitions for all the backups were the reason behind the split day and Wulff said that goal was accomplished.
“It’s invaluable for those young guys,” he said. “Some of those guys are going to end up playing for us this fall. … This gives us an opportunity to give a lot of attention to those guys.”
And for the first time this season he got to see it. In person.