Countdown to Sunday: Position battles loom

THE WHISTLES OFF FALL will ring out across the Palouse on Sunday with the start of football workouts at Washington State. And with it will come the continuation of several key position battles that weren't settled in the spring. Starting slots at center and cornerback, each with numerous contenders, will be the most watched. But other positions offer intrigue as well.

Can DeMaundray Woolridge hang on to the starting role at running back with the arrival of four more backs since spring, including JC All-American Derrell Hutsona? Will Darryl Blunt maintain his slight lead over Fritz Brayton at punter? How will the deadlock for No. 3 quarterback, between Arkelon Hall and Cole Morgan, be broken?

Much to Bill Doba's relief, the battlefield doesn't include the starting spot -- quarterback -- that garnered so much attention last spring. Alex Brink not only has the position nailed down, but is widely considered an honors candidate this season.

Two other positions that once figured to be wide open -- Will Derting's old slot at middle linebacker and Adam Braidwood's old spot at defensive end opposite Mkristo Bruce - appear settled as well. Matt Mullennix (6-5, 256), who 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, put a stranglehold on the end position in the spring. The Cougs do, however, need to find some DE depth behind Bruce and Mullennix. At middle 'backer, Greg Trent stepped in last season as true freshman when Derting went down with injury and proceeded to post 69 tackles on the season -- second-most on the team despite only seven starts -- and earned second-team Freshman All-America plaudits. He had a lot of growing pains along the way, but looks to be a sure-fire starter this year unless Chris Baltzer, Jason Stripling or Cory Evans turns in a monster August.

At defensive tackle, 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. Another big body, JC transfer Bryan Tarkington (6-4, 320) figures to battle for turns as well. Ahmu is coming back from a broken foot that ruined much of his spring session and Pitoitua is back from a leg injury that prevented him from running full speed up until about six weeks ago. If Pitoitua, who now has several screws in his leg, is fully healthy, expect him to start next to Johnson. Regardless who starts, though, all the Cougar DTs will see plenty of action.

Now on to some of the marquee battles in store this month:

CORNERBACK
The Cougars lose 2005 starters Alex Teems and Wale Dada, so 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) should 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 sophomore Ryan Kensok (5-9, 164), true sophomore Courtney Williams (6-1, 193) and at least three -- and possibly four -- newcomers. JC transfers Markus Dawes and Brian Williams will get every opportunity to shine, as will freshman Kerry Maddox. In addition, JC transfer B.T. Walker could be in the mix if transcript issues get worked out.

RUNNING BACK
Dwight Tardy and Kevin McCall will resume their battle from spring, which ended with Woolridge -- who gained 312 yards last season as Jerome Harrison's understudy -- at No. 1. But the competition expands in a big with the arrival of four RBs from the newest class of recruits. That group is headlined by JC All-American Derrell Hutsona. It also includes incoming high school recruits Skylar Jessen, Chris Ivory and Marcus Richmond. Another star JC pick up, J.T. Diederichs of Seattle, didn't qualify academically and will not suit up for the Cougars in 2006.

CENTER
Two positions on the offensive line were up for grabs in the spring, but third-year sophomore Andy Roof (6-3, 316) of Spokane pretty well put a vice grip on Norvell Holmes' old spot at right guard by the time the Crimson & Gray game rolled around. Things didn't conclude nearly so cleanly at center, where second-year freshman Kenny Alfred (6-3, 294), senior Josh Duin (6-4, 305) and third-year sophomore Dan Rowlands (6-5, 284) are vying to replace Nick Mihlhauser. Duin came out of the spring session listed No. 1 on the depth chart, but the situation was muddled by injuries to Alfred (broken hand) and Rowlands (shoulder). If everyone stays healthy in August, this could be one battle that goes down to the wire. Another starting position in the trenches is open with tight end Troy Bienemann's graduation, but there is no doubt who the new starter will be: talented Cody Boyd (6-8, 257). He was sidelined this spring, recovering from foot surgery, but is expected at full strength on Sunday. His backups, and the candidates to man one of the spots in the Cougs' 2-TEs set, will be senior Jesse Taylor (6-3, 240), junior Jed Collins (6-2, 220), third-year sophomore Ben Woodard (6-5, 237) and JC transfer Jason Price (6-4, 256).

PUNTER
The Cougars must replace long-time starter Kyle Basler and a spirited competition unfolded in the spring between Brayton, a walk on entering his third season in the program, and former Portland State punter Blunt, who walked on last August. Blunt came out of spring with a slight edge, mostly due to consistency as opposed to distance differentials.

NO.3 QUARTERBACK
The top two roles are firmly in the hands of Brink and No. 2 man Gary Rogers, but the fight for No. 3 concluded in the spring with a dead heat between second-year freshmen Hall (6-2, 215) and Morgan (6-3, 200). "The goal of spring ball is just to make players better, and they have both done that," QB coach Timm Rosenbach said in April. "We'll just keep putting them up against each other and see who comes out on top ... My biggest concern is figuring out how to get them on the field. It's tough to get good, quality reps (for everyone)." He says whoever wins the third slot may actually wish they were fourth because No. 3 tends to be a limbo land between consistent scout team work and scattered snaps with the first and second units. The No. 5 spot will be filled by JC transfer walk on Garrett Congdon (6-3, 230). Touted Kansas State transfer Kevin Lopina must sit out this season before becoming eligible in 2007.

NOTABLE NOTES:

• Cougfan.com once again plans to bring you wall-to-wall coverage of Cougar workouts, from the first practice Sunday right up till camp breaks before the Auburn game Sept. 2.

• The Cougars have 12 regular-season games this season, starting with that tough road contest against mighty Auburn, the consensus No. 6 team in the nation according to the preseason magazines. 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. Washington State is one of only two teams in the Pac-10 (UW) not to have a bye in 2006.

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