Starting battles bloom with dawn of spring

SENIOR CB DON TURNER

THE WHISTLES OF SPRING will ring on the Palouse starting Tuesday afternoon and all eyes will be on a select few positions where starting roles are up for grabs. Much to Bill Doba's relief, the battlefield doesn't include the spot -- quarterback -- that garnered so much attention last spring. Running back, where Jerome Harrison leaves a void of historic size, will be the marquee contest this time. But defense appears to offer the most wide open contests.

Indeed, the defensive end slot opposite Mkristo Bruce will find a host of contenders to replace Adam Braidwood. Junior-to-be Matt Mullennix (6-5, 256) may have the inside track. He saw action in 11 games last season and appeared late in the campaign to be fully recovered from the knee injury that sidelined him in 2004. Also in the mix will be Paul Stevens (6-3, 250), Lance Broadus (6-2, 211), and swift sophomore Mike Graise (6-3, 216). Graise and Broadus each played in 10 games in '05 and Stevens in six.

At the two tackle positions, the Cougars return three – yes, 3 – starters in junior-to-be Aaron Johnson (6-6, 330) and sophomore Fevaea'i Ahmu (6-1, 284), each of whom started every game in 2005, and Ropati Pitoitua (6-8, 300), a touted junior-to-be who has spent most of the last two seasons dealing with injuries. Ahmu started in place of Pitoitua in 2005 and was voted second-team Freshman All-America by Scout.com. Come fall, another big body, JC transfer Bryan Tarkington (6-4, 320) figures to battle for turns as well. Regardkess who starts, expect them all to see plenty of action.

At cornerback, where the Cougars lose 2005 starters Alex Teems and Wale Dada, there are technically two open spots. But the reality is that one of them will be manned by Tyron Brackenridge (6-0, 191), a one-time four-star prospect who redshirted last season to get his academic house in order.

Look for a battle royale on the other side, however, with a host of contenders. On paper, senior-to-be Don Turner (6-1, 183) will be favored. He's played in 34 games the last three years and last season posted 25 tackles and one interception. The expectations around Turner have been high since he came out of Spokane's University High but in part due to injuries he has yet to fulfill that promise. His primary challengers will be third-year sophomores Ryan Kensok (5-9, 164) and Ian Bell (5-9, 180) and perhaps true sophomore Courtney Williams (6-1, 193), who could move over from safety.

No matter who wins the battle this spring, the challenge will continue in the fall when the Cougars welcome two JC transfer cornerbacks – Brian Williams and B.T. Walker – and prep standout Kerry Maddox.

A position once destined for a battle this spring -- middle linebacker, to replace Will Derting –- wouldn't appear to be in play anymore after freshman Greg Trent (5-10, 230) stepped in for the injured Derting last season and proceeded to post 69 tackles on the season (second-most on the team) and earned second-team Freshman All-America plaudits.

ON OFFENSE, RUNNING BACK will hold the most intrigue as DeMaundray Woolridge, Dwight Tardy and Kevin McCall vie to replace the record-setting Harrison. But the competition will expand in the fall with the expected arrival of five RBs from the newest class of recruits, including JC All-Americans Derrell Hutsona and J.T. Diederichs.

Woolridge, who we'll be profiling in a story Monday, rushed last season for 323 yards on 52 carries, mostly in non-conference action. Tardy redshirted, while McCall fought leg injuries that ruined the early part of his season.

Troy Bienemann is gone at tight end, but there is no doubt who the new starter will be: talented Cody Boyd (6-8, 257). He is sidelined this spring, however, recovering from foot surgery and understudy Jesse Taylor (6-3, 240) is also on the injured list with a stinger, so look for third-year sophomore Ben Woodard (6-5, 237) and JC transfer Jason Price (6-4, 256) to make the most of their turns this spring.

Two positions on the offensive line are up for grabs. At center, second-year freshman Kenny Alfred (6-3, 294) and senior Josh Duin (6-4, 305) are the favorites to replace Nick Mihlhauser. At right guard, where Norvell Holmes departs, the contest should be waged between third-year sophomores Andy Roof (6-3, 316) and Dan Rowlands (6-5, 284). The two touted members of the 2004 recruiting class saw limited playing time behind Holmes and Charles Harris in 2005. Derek Hunter, who came to WSU last year from Fullerton College, could also contend.

AT PUNTER, WHERE THE Cougars must replace long-time starter Kyle Basler, a neck-and-neck competition is expected to unfold between Fritz Brayton, a walk on entering his third season in the program, and former Portland State punter Darryl Blunt, who walked on last August. Long-snapping chores, previously handled by Bienemann with an assist or two from Adam West and Riley Fitt-Chappell, also will be up for grabs this season. Among the contenders will be tight end Tony Thompson and defensive end Mkristo Bruce.

NOTABLE NOTES:

• Spring practices begin March 21 and will conclude with the annual spring game on April 15. Cougfan.com plans to bring you wall-to-wall coverage throughout.

• Unlike last spring, there are no questions at quarterback for the Cougars. Alex Brink, a 6-2, 212-pound junior, has 16 consecutive starts to his name, along with 31 career TD passes and nearly 4,200 career passing yards. Sophomore Gary Rogers will be No. 2 behind center. He took only a handful of real-game snaps last season but shapes us as a gamer with great size (6-5, 241) and a powerful arm. Second-year freshmen Arkelon Hall and Cole Morgan will round out the group.

• The Cougars have 12 regular-season games this season, starting with a tough road contest against mighty Auburn on Sept. 2. That will be followed by non-conference games against Idaho at home and resurgent Baylor in Seattle. The Apple Cup will be in Pullman. With 12, rather than the traditional 11, games there will be no bye week.

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