Today's practice was cold. No, the players had their usual intensity – though a new defensive drill went a session longer than it was scheduled for because the coaches weren't happy with the execution – but the weather was damp and a little cold. That weather didn't hamper the return of a couple key contributors, however, so read on.
• We summarized Paul Wulff's press conference for you earlier today, and he hinted a few guys who had missed some time would be back at practice. They were. Defensive back Nolan Washington suited up and went through the entire workout, including the contact parts, without showing any ill-effects from his hip problem. With he and Aire Justin both returning the form, the Cougars have more depth in the secondary, something they'll need against Oklahoma State. On the other side of the ball, fullback Jared Byers also returned from his toe problem. Byers is a key blocker in the run game and a competent receiver out of the backfield. Chantz Staden also was able to do everything in practice, the first time for him for a few days. ... None of the other walking wounded, especially Toni Pole (calf) and Kristoff Williams, (toe) were able to make it back. Williams is out for Saturday and Pole seems very questionable. ... One other thing from Tuesday. Former Cougar center Kenny Alfred hobbled out to practice on crutches. Alfred had surgery on his left hip – he had his right one done before his senior year – three weeks ago and will be on crutches for another six weeks. He's staying in Pullman and doing his rehab work here, trying to get healthy enough, as he said, to be able to play with his children, when he has some. Alfred and I talked for quite a while and he's come to terms with his football career being over, though he still is struggling watching the game. He said the only two teams he can watch right now are Gig Harbor High and WSU, the two schools he has an attachment with. He signed a free agent contract with the Tennessee Titans and attended all the summer workouts, trying his best to follow the weight-lifting and practice dictates. But the hip got so bad, he spent three days in bed then could only hobble around practice. That was enough. He called it quits and came back home to get his body fixed. Being on crutches didn't stop him from talking with old teammates and appraising new ones with a lineman's eye. One new player that stood out: freshman tackle John Fullington. Alfred had only positive things to say about his footwork, balance and quickness.
• Here's an unedited version of our story for tomorrow's S-R, a look at the Cougars upcoming schedule and the challenges it presents.
PULLMAN – When the 2010 Pac-10 football schedule was first coming together, Washington State's was daunting, but not impossible.
The Cougars were scheduled to play their three non-conference games, then six consecutive conference contests before getting a bye Nov. 6.
There would then be two more conference games, another bye, and the Apple Cup in Pullman on Dec. 4.
Tough, but doable.
One problem. That schedule left WSU with a game against California on Nov. 20 in Pullman.
That's the Saturday before the Thanksgiving break. The last two times a non-Apple Cup game was played in Pullman that weekend they drew 22,660 – most of whom left at halftime – and 16,167, both against Oregon State.
Not the best of situations.
But it just so happened California also had a bye Nov. 6, and wanted to play Stanford on Nov. 20. Talks occurred and a change was made. The Cal-WSU game was moved to the first Saturday in November.
"(The move) was for a couple reasons," explained WSU athletic director Bill Moos of one of his first decisions when he took over last spring. "One was to help accommodate Cal and Stanford – they gave us some financial considerations for that – and it allows us to have a two-week break. Our players can go home for Thanksgiving, if that's allowed by the coaching staff.
"And that late in the year, to have two weeks to heal before the Apple Cup is a luxury we will have that the Huskies won't."
So the final schedule avoids the poorly attended pre-Thanksgiving weekend, but gives the Cougars 11 consecutive games without a break.
Again, not the best of situations.
"It can be real difficult, especially if you have a year where you have a lot of injuries," WSU coach Paul Wulff said. "If you can stay healthy and you have some depth, then you can make it."
But that hasn't been the case the past couple years. The Cougars neither had depth nor stayed healthy. And with 11 consecutive games, the question is, will they have either when the march ends? Not even Wulff knows.
"It will be interesting to see how we go through that," Wulff said. "It's a hell of a test for us."
A test they are not shying away from.
"It's something that will be good to see," Wulff said. "It's something good for us to test ourselves. Right now for our program, it's a good test for our guys, to see where we're out and build off that."
Building a schedule that allows for byes interspersed within the season, generates income for the athletic department and pits WSU against competitive non-conference foes has gotten tougher over time.
And it's only going to get tougher in the Pac-10, with a conference championship game more than likely on the horizon the first weekend of December.
The 12 games will have to be shoehorned into 13 weeks, including Thanksgiving and Labor Day.
This year, after the 11-week grind, the Cougars will have those two consecutive bye weeks before the Apple Cup. Only Army and Navy, who take two weeks off before their rivalry game, will have consecutive byes among FBS schools.
"A lot depends on how your team is playing at that time, the health of your team," Wulff said of the two bye weeks. "Sometimes it could be good. We play our last game on Nov. 13, then we turn around and play Dec. 4, that's three weeks, from one game to another. That's pretty darn long."
It also could make a difference.
"That could be challenging, the crispness, sharpness of our players playing," Wulff said. "But it is late in the year and hopefully we'll be able to bounce back and perform like we plan on doing."
To keep his teams' focus off the long road ahead, Wulff has split the season into quarters. Signs around the locker room and coaches' offices show the season as a series of steps, with three games making up each step.
"You can't look at the big picture when you have a season, you have to have short-term goals," Wulff explained. "We're just trying to simplify them, break things down and make sure our focus is really at the task at hand and in front of us."
The 2010 schedule
Sept. 4 @ Oklahoma State
Sept. 11 Montana State
Sept. 18 @ Southern Methodist
Sept. 25 USC
Oct. 2 @ UCLA
Oct. 9 Oregon
Oct. 16 Arizona
Oct. 23 @ Stanford
Oct. 30 @ Arizona State
Nov. 6 California
Nov. 13 @ Oregon State
Dec 4 Washington
• That's all for tonight. We'll be back in the morning with our usual items. Until then ...