JOE EPPELE, THE big Canadian who has battled shoulder problems for the last year, is starting to click on the offensive line, WSU head coach Bill Doba said in a wide-ranging chat with reporters. If the 6-7, 277-pound second-year freshman from Vancouver can stay healthy, his future is bright, Doba said. He noted that Eppele runs better and has a thicker body than former WSU standout Sam Lightbody.
Like Eppele, the 6-9, 317-pound Lightbody grayshirted, redshirted and battled injuries. But he became a Cougar mainstay at tackle for three seasons and in 2004 earned second-team All-Pac-10 honors. He also was named WSU's offensive lineman of the year that season, and later signed free agent contracts with the Houston Texans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Earlier this spring, Doba said Eppele looks like a prototypical left tackle -- a position manned for the last two years by honors candidate Bobby Byrd, who has been taking some turns at guard this spring. The right tackle spot is wide open where Charles Harris used to be.
Doba said Tuesday that the Cougars' offensive line figures to be solid in 2007, as long as the hosses stay healthy.
At the moment, however, that's not the case. Dan Rowlands, a part-time starter at guard last season and a periodic presence at right tackle this spring, is out for the remainder of the session with an ankle injury, as is tackle Derek Hunter (knee sprain). Doba said neither injury is serious and both will be ready to go in August. Touted JC transfer Vaughn Lesuma, who is only participating in non-contact drills this spring because of recent wrist surgery, also will be ready to knock heads in August and will contend for the starting job at right tackle.
ON DEFENSE, WHERE the Cougars must replace six starters, Doba said he's taking a new approach this season because of the D's youth. "Defensively we're going real slow ... What I (usually) like to do is put our defense in the worst possible position and see if they can overcome it."
With the defense running solely out of basic sets, the offense ran up big yardage last Friday in the first scrimmage of the spring. This Friday's scrimmage will include a few more coverages, he said.
Cornerback is clearly one of Doba's concerns. He said the CBs are especially struggling on blitzes. On the positive side, they are being challenged everyday by a front-line of receivers that could be among the best in the Pac-10 this season. Doba will get additional cornerback talent in August with the arrival of prepsters Romeo Pellum, Tyrone Justin and Chima Nwachukwu, and JC transfer Devin Giles. JC All-American safety Terry Mixon also could get a look at corner this fall.
ON THE ACADEMIC FRONT Doba said running back Derrell Hutsona, who isn't participating in spring drills, is "devoting all his time" to hitting the books but his return in August isn't "a sure-fire thing." JC tranfer Wyman Alexander, who could be a huge boost this fall to the Cougars' young linebacking corps, has a ways to go yet before getting his AA degree. Running back DeMaundray Woolridge is in Pullman attending classes at Spokane Falls Community College's branch campus and will have to attend summer school before his outlook for fall eligibility is known.
* Tight end Devin Frischknecht tweaked a knee Friday. He initially was thought to be lost for the remainder of the spring, but told Doba he'd be back in two or three days.
* Quarterback Kevin Lopina has missed much of the spring with a bad hamstring and will probably miss most of the rest, Doba said.
* The Cougars are holding scrimmages on Fridays this spring, rather than the traditional Saturdays. Doba said he wanted to give the players the weekend off as a morale boost following the bitter end to a 2006 season that dashed what seemed a certain bowl invitation.
* Receivers Benny Ward, Keith Rosenberg and Charles Dillon, linebacker Alex Hamill, defensive end Lance Broadus and defensive tackle Matt Eichelberger are among the players who have caught Doba's eye this spring.
* Doba said No. 2 quarterback Gary Rogers continues to get better.
* Walk-on wide receiver Andy Largent of Spokane is transferring to Whitworth.