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Special teams have surfaced as young Cougars’ specialty

PULLMAN – College football coaches will normally tell you to wait three years before judging the quality of a recruiting class.

So it might come as a surprise to hear Bill Doba touting his most recent group of newcomers now, just two weeks into their Division I playing careers.

Just two of them, freshman Fevaea’i Ahmu and junior college transfer DeWayne Patterson, are starting on offense or defense. But Doba still has a good reason to think that this group of newcomers is a special one – special teams.

The Cougars have loaded their special teams units with freshmen and transfers, especially the two kickoff units. Nine new Cougars are on kick coverage, seven on kick returns, four on punt coverage and two on punt returns.

For Washington State that means fewer redshirts this season, but Doba and running backs coach Kelly Skipper, also responsible for special teams, see plenty of benefits.

“I feel great about it, to be quite honest with you,” Doba said. “We’re not stepping down or lowering our ability or our athleticism by playing them.

“They are a better class than I thought they were, obviously a much better class than the experts rated them as.”

WSU put an emphasis on recruiting athleticism, and it’s showing now with so many of the newcomers on special teams, where most of the game’s open-field running and tackling takes place.

“Last year we were getting to a point where we didn’t have enough bodies to field the kickoff cover,” Skipper said. “This has been a tremendous boost. These guys can play.”

As would be expected, not everything has been perfect. Against Idaho, both kickoff units struggled to effectively execute the Cougars’ scheme. Against Nevada, kick returner Lorenzo Bursey decided to take the ball out of the end zone and cost the team field position as a result.

“The freshmen against Idaho, we had guys run right by the ball carrier and hit the guy that was trying to block them,” Doba said. “We said, ‘Hey, guys, the object of the game is to try to tackle the guy with the ball.’

“They’re starting from scratch, so the improvement is going to be quite a bit.”

For the newcomers on special teams, even if every play doesn’t turn out perfectly, the opportunity to be on the field comes as a thrill. Most years, all but a small number of new players end up donning the green jersey of a scout teamer. Not this season, though.

Instead, they’re replacing starters like linebacker Scott Davis, who last season toiled on a number of special teams units but this year gets to take a breather – and stay healthier – on the sidelines when it’s time for kickoffs.

“It’s a privilege,” said freshman safety Michael Willis, who’s on both kickoff and kick return. “A lot of freshmen come in fresh out of high school and the transition is hard to make, so it takes one to two years before they can compete and play. It’s an honor that I get to play so early.

“We take pride in our kickoff, kickoff return. We’re going to bust a couple this year on kick return.”

Notes

Defensive tackle Aaron Johnson missed practice Tuesday with a bruised knee but is expected to be back with time to spare before Saturday’s game. … Running back Kevin McCall returned to practice after a fall camp high ankle sprain. Doba said that true freshman DeMaundray Woolridge has the inside track on the No. 2 running back spot that McCall vacated. … Offensive lineman Josh Duin was given a scholarship by WSU earlier this week. … Wide receiver Thomas Ostrander is back in Pullman after spending a long weekend in a Seattle hospital because of a lower back infection. … Defensive end Adam West (concussion) will not play this week. … Tight end Cody Boyd is working out on a limited basis in practice as he recovers from an ankle injury.

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