SPRING RECAP: Defense signals improvement

GREG TRENT

PULLMAN -- As Cougar football took the field a month ago, the woes of last year appeared to rear their ugly heads. The kicking game was broken, and the secondary looked defenseless against a strong WSU receiving corps. However, those woes seem to have dissipated, or at least faded greatly, when the Cougs took the field for the final session's scrimmage last Saturday. Part I of a two-part series looks at the kicking game and defense, as WSU's stop corps this spring woke up some crimson echoes.

This spring saw an emergence of the heavy hitters on the defensive side of the ball.

The linebackers' unit looked solid all spring, dishing out punishment and making the tackles when called upon. With three returning starters in the mix -- seniors Scott Davis and Steve Dildine and sophomore Greg Trent -- the linebacking corps is a defensive strength, one that looks to take aim against any offense this season.


SCOTT DAVIS

Defensive coordinator Robb Akey said Dildine and Davis each looks ready to make some noise this year, and co-captain Davis has clearly assumed a role as one of the team leaders on the field and in the locker room.

Trent proved a point, be it unnecessarily as a yellow flag came flying, when he dished out a hit on junior tight end Jed Collins. In the third scrimmage of the spring, Collins was thumped to the ground of Martin Stadium with impressive force courtesy of the 230-pound Texas 'backer built like Zeus.

The hit garnered a frenzy of fan reaction from those baring an unusual April chill during Mom's weekend in Pullman -- '15-yard penalties be damned', the fans seemed to be saying. Those massive collisions were too long absent in '05, and the crowd drunk it in like a man 40 days in the desert welcomes water.

THE LINEBACKERS weren't the only ones dispensing out the bone-rattling hits, though. The thunderous attacks laid out by sophomore safety Michael Willis were enough to strike fear in any offensive player bold enough to cross his path. And they were enough to make coach Bill Doba really consider Willis as a contender in the safety position.


MICHAEL WILLIS

The image of Willis barreling towards an offensive player and laying all 217 pounds of muscle mass with bad intentions can't be erased from anyone's mind that was fortunate enough to see Willis dish out one of his concussion-inducing hits.

The return of injured senior Eric Frampton (knee) in the fall to his SS post and the steadfast play of free safety Husain Abdullah this spring, the starting safety positions look to be well in hand. But as Akey told a CF.C chat room audience yesterday, Willis has the skills to play free safety. It seems a foregone conclusion based on the comments of Doba and Akey that Willis will be meting out Saturday punishment this fall. How much and how often will be determined by the summer months of voluntary work, and the fall camp that begins in about 15 weeks time.

ONE OF THE brightest spots in the defensive unit, and certainly it's most vocal, was chaired by defensive end Mkristo Bruce.


MKRISTO BRUCE

The All-American candidate's presence was felt (and heard) across the field all spring. With fall session -- somewhat misnamed since the Cougs lace it up the second week of August -- around the corner, Bruce leads a solid crew who gave evidence they can run with any offensive line in the game.

The Cougs up front demonstrated their capabilities aptly all spring; a stubbirn streak against the run, and racking up a number of sacks and tackles for losses throughout the session. But more than that, the constant pressure Bruce and company evoke, even in the absence of a litany of players due to injuries, looks to be a strong defensive weapon for Washington State in 2006. The '03 crimson vintage had their share of sacks, true, but it was more the constant pressure that made the defensive difference in a 10-win season.

THE FINAL AREA of the defense, one that has been a serious cause for concern, is the cornerback position. Secondary coach Ken Greene has made it crystal clear that he was not pleased with the play he saw from his corners this spring session.


TYRON BRACKENRIDGE

As spring wound down and the battle for the corners raged on, there were no clear winners. Although Tyron Brackenridge looked solid when he played, he was hampered by injuries all spring and unable to produce the consistency in his game, leaving his starting role in question according to Greene. Akey took the opportunity in the CF.C chat session to say Brackenridge helped himself this spring, but it's also apparent Greene is looking for more.

Sophomore Ryan Kensok had a break-out spring, but was it enough to earn a starting spot? Not at this point. No one will outwork the 5-9 Kensok, but with the expected arrival of JC transfers Brian Williams, B.T. Walker and Markus Dawes this fall, the cornerback position looks to be shaping up for an all-out battle.

Whoever emerges out on the islands this fall, expect them to feel a sense of urgency as the defensive side of Cougar football will be heavily expected to contribute to WSU's return to winning seasons and bowl games.

WHEN THE SESSION kicked off the second to last week in March, Loren Langley looked out of step in every aspect. Indeed, the struggles of last season seemed to have followed the Cougars' place-kicker right into spring.


LOREN LANGLEY

Except, maybe Langley's travails were not entirely of his own making. Perhaps it wasn't only Langley who was off balance, but that there was also a glitch in the cohesiveness of the whole kicking unit?

The spring opened with a new long snapper in Tony Thompson and a new holder in Darryl Blunt. Indeed, these two positions greatly affect a kicker's rhythm and this was clearly evident with Langley.

As spring wore on, though, Langley looked to be finding his step; sailing 3-of-4 through the uprights in Saturday's final game, with the lone miss being a mishold. ‘Peanut' seemed to be finding his way back to a recipe for success, and perhaps all he needs is a little more time.

Editor's note: Kari Hockett and Cody Glad covered every Washington State practice for CF.C this spring. The crack reporting team filed insightful, timely dispatches along with breaking news, all while providing an in-depth perspective on Cougar Football not seen elsewhere. Our hats are off to them.

Coming tomorrow, Spring recap Part II: The offense

NOTE: Mark your calendars for this upcoming Wednesday, April 26, at 7 p.m. PT when Jeff McQuarrie, producer and director of an upcoming new 4-hour documentary on the colorful history Cougar Football scheduled for release later this year, will be answering questions in the CF.C chat room. McQuarrie has been working on the film for several years and along the way has talked to a Who's Who from the Cougar Nation including Keith Jackson, Drew Bledsoe, Marcus Trufant, Mike Utley, Steve Gleason and many, many more. Head to Legends of the Palouse for more info.

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