PULLMAN – At first, Darryl Monroe wasn’t sure he’d even be able to practice this spring.
Still recovering from a torn Achilles suffered in Washington State’s 2011 season opener, Monroe watched as WSU fired the coach who recruited him, Paul Wulff, and hired Mike Leach along with an entirely new staff.
That made the redshirt freshman linebacker want to get back on the field even faster in order to prove himself. Still, coaches wanted to be cautious with Monroe’s injury. But as he felt better and better, he started pleading his case.
Said Monroe: “As I kept going, I just kept telling them, ‘Coach, I can go, I can go.’ ”
He can go.
Monroe has emerged as one of the more pleasant defensive surprises for WSU so far, not only making it through the team’s first four practices of the spring without limitation, but turning heads with his fast, physical play at the “Mike” – or middle – linebacker position.
And he hasn’t just surprised his coaches.
Asked if he expected to be able to play this fast, this soon, Monroe paused for a moment before replying, “To be honest, nah, I didn’t think so.”
“I didn’t really think I’d be practicing. I just thought I’d be helping with the linebacker group, but I guess I just started working through it and it got better and just didn’t bother me mentally. Physically, it hurts after, but I manage myself.”
As much as Monroe wanted to make a positive impression on the new staff, WSU’s coaches knew they needed him, too. Graduation had already taken its toll on the Cougars’ linebacker depth. And then starters C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi were each dismissed from the team for violations of team policy.
It was no secret prior to the spring that opportunity at that position would be ample.
“We weren’t loaded to begin with,” defensive coordinator Mike Breske said, admitting that Thursday’s wet conditions and cold temperature made him a bit nervous in regard to Monroe’s foot. “With his injury, we didn’t know how much he’d get him. It’s been a plus for our defense.
“He’s athletic, he can change directions, got great agility. And he’s got a nasty mentality. Love it.”
Monroe called last season’s injury “probably one of the hardest thing I’ve been through in my life,” recalling the weekends his team would be playing on the road with him stuck at home, on crutches, able only to watch.
“It was miserable,” said Monroe, a native of Orlando, Fla. “But I had great coaching with the last staff and our current staff. They’re all great guys. They stuck with me.”
Monroe isn’t the only linebacker making a name for himself this spring. Junior linebacker Eric Oertel, who began last season at linebacker before moving to running back, had Breske raving after Thursday’s practice.
He provided one of the day’s biggest hits, filling the gap and hammering running back Carl Winston immediately after he caught a screen pass.
Breske said Oertel will play mostly the “Sam” linebacker spot to the strong side of the field.
“He’s very athletic,” Breske said. “He’s got an aggressive streak in him, a natural blitzer, and he’s getting better each day.”
That is also what he wants – and, truthfully, needs – out of Monroe, who aims to be one of the team’s leaders on the field.
“(Coaches) talk to me like, ‘You’ve got to be that guy,’ ” Monroe said. “I feel like I’ll be the middle man that everybody looks to, so I’ve just got to live up to that position.”
Coach Mike Leach said after Thursday’s practice that he thinks tight end Aaron Dunn, a Mead High School product, will transfer from WSU. Dunn was not present at the last two practices. … Quarterback Connor Halliday was not in pads for the third consecutive practice. Leach said he didn’t know when Halliday would be able to practice again. … Players who were limited at Thursday’s practice included cornerback Nolan Washington, cornerback Spencer Waseem, cornerback Brandon Golden, safety Max Gama, cornerback Travion Smith, defensive end Adam Coerper, offensive lineman Jake Rodgers, offensive lineman Joe Dahl, defensive end Jordan Pu’u Robinson and defensive end Hamza Griffin. Linebacker Curtis Selz, defensive end Darryl Paulo and running back Rickey Galvin each appeared to be shaken up during practice. Defensive end Lenard Williams was not present. Leach does not discuss injuries. … Kyle Lappano moved from linebacker to running back, his original position.