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WSU kicks off practice in morning


If you read the previous post, you're pretty up-to-date with Paul Wulff's thoughts heading into tomorrow's opening day of fall football camp. If you didn't, do it now. I mean it. Done? Now you can read our two unedited stories prepared for tomorrow's S-R.

• We'll start with the overview, most of which came out of Wulff's press conference this afternoon …

PULLMAN – There will be a new look for Washington State University's football team when practice begins this morning at 9.

It doesn't have much to do with uniforms, though those have been redesigned for the 2009 season, as the Cougars have switched suppliers from Russell Athletic to Nike. And, no it doesn't have a lot to do with the freshly painted lines at Rogers Field, WSU's practice facility.

It's all about the guy in front of the team.

Head coach Paul Wulff's team will be on the field, but he won't.

Wulff will be serving a three-day suspension, part of an NCAA-mandated punishment relating to violations that occurred while Wulff was the head coach at Eastern Washington University.

So while the Cougars run through drills in the expected 60-degree weather – the unseasonably cool weather is forecast to last all week – Wulff will be in his Bohler Gym office, banned from contact with players until Wednesday.

Not that he thinks it will matter much.

"We scripted these practices out in what we were going to do quite a while ago," said Wulff, who has turned over the reins to assistant head coach Chris Ball (see sidebar). "It kind of runs like clockwork at this point."

So what will Wulff be missing in three days without full pads?

• The beginnings of a "wide-open" quarterback battle.

Senior Kevin Lopina and sophomore Marshall Lobbestael – coming off knee surgery but cleared to practice – have the inside track but Wulff said he's "not going to rule out (any) of the quarterbacks on our roster." Sophomores J.T. Levenseller and Dan Wagner also saw time during the injury-plagued 2008 season, while freshmen Jeff Tuel and David Gilbertson round out the depth chart.

• The first look at the freshman class, which includes Gonzaga Prep's Travis Long, who will get a shot at playing right away on the defensive line, and two defensive backs, Nolan Washington and Anthony Carpenter, who may be thrown into the mix as well.

There are 30 new faces this fall, counting transfers and incoming recruits.

• A group of returnees from last year's 2-11 season – Wulff's first at WSU – including "a lot of players with injuries they had to overcome to get back healthy on the field this year," Wulff said.

Taking into account the roughly two dozen players coming off injuries that required surgery, Wulff feels there has been "a lot of improvement made." Just how much improvement is still unclear, though, as NCAA rules preclude coaches from being a part of off-season workouts.

"As coaches, we're always anxious to see how practice goes the first week or so," Wulff said, "because we don't know ... how much progress they've made in the summer.

"I can answer that question a lot better, obviously, after about a week or so of practice."


• Now we have a look at assistant head coach Chris Ball, who will be running practice the next three days. Ball is also the co-defensive coordinator and coaches the safeties. Here's the raw version of the story …

PULLMAN – Chris Ball is ready for his starring role.

With Washington State University football coach Paul Wulff sidelined due to an NCAA-mandated suspension, the Cougars' assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator will play the role of head coach for the first three days of practice.

But this isn't the first time the 46-year-old Ball has filled the part.

"It's just part of the title," Ball said, laughing. "I've been assistant head coach other places when the head coach had to go do something."

The three days of leading workouts are an audition of sorts for Ball, who admits to wanting to move up the ladder.

"Ya, I do," he answered when asked if he wants to be a head coach some day, "but it's not like I'm dying to be."

But before he accepts the challenges being a full-time head coach brings, he's got a bigger one to deal with.

"The No. 1 thing right now, what I'm so obsessed with right now is getting this thing turned back around," said Ball, who has coached at 10 different schools, including Alabama and Pittsburgh. "The challenging part of it is really intriguing me and I'm excited about it.

"I really, really want to get this thing back on track, win some games, and get this thing the way it was when we left."

This is Ball's third tour of duty in Pullman, where he was a graduate assistant in 1989 before returning to coach Mike Price's defensive backs for three years starting in 2000.

Ball followed the former Cougar coach to Tuscaloosa, Ala., after consecutive 10-win seasons, but Pullman was always in the back of his mind.

When Wulff replaced Bill Doba and called with an opening, Ball weighed the opportunities at Pitt – he said he was offered the defensive coordinator spot after accepting the WSU position – against those available in the Palouse. The family-friendly nature of Pullman, coupled with his experiences in the prior stints, easily won out.

"This is the best place for me right now," Ball said, "and the best place for my family right now."


• That's it for tonight. We'll be back in the morning with links to WSU and Pac-10-related stories. Until then …

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

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