DAY 14: Cougs come back strong

GREG TRENT

PULLMAN -- The Cougars displayed fresh legs and renewed enthusiasm Tuesday morning, when light rain helped bring cooler temperatures after a day off. Probable starters like running back Dwight Tardy, wide receiver Michael Willis and cornerback Alfonso Jackson saw action after shaking off injuries. Paul Wulff also brought in a Cougar great to speak to the players following the session.

Injuries, suffocating heat and the sheer drudgery of daily practices had taken a toll on Washington State. The Cougars had practiced 17 times over 13 days headed into Tuesday's morning session, not counting split squad pactices. Monday proved to be the perfect remedy.

"Everyone needed the day off," coach Paul Wulff said.

"That day off did a lot for our minds and bodies," defensive tackle Fevaea'i Ahmu A'i Ahmu said.

The Cougars, who were set to practice again Tuesday afternoon, have just one more day off scheduled (next Monday, the first day of classes) before the Aug. 30 opener against Oklahoma State.

"This is a big week of competition to see who is going to step up and ultimately see who gets the nod the first week in terms of starting," Wulff said.

MARK RYPIEN, CougGreat and 1992 Super Bowl MVP for the Washington Redskins, accepted Wulff's invitation to speak to the Cougars at the end of practice.

"They've got to understand the tradition that has gone on here," said Wulff, who redshirted as a freshman when Rypien finished up at WSU in 1985. "Some phenomenal players, some of the best players in the world that have played football have come from Washington State."

Players gave Rypien a round of applause when he finished speaking.

"The topic was basically adversity," Wulff said. "How we all go through it. That we all have to support each other. That's all part of being a Cougar and having that great loyalty and family atmosphere."

THE PRACTICE CONCLUDED with a Rogers touchdown pass over the middle to tight end Devin Frischknecht. Earlier, Brandon Gibson leaped above Jackson -- who all but glued himself to Gibson -- to make a gorgeous grab on a 15-yard TD toss from Rogers into the back left corner of the end zone.

Defensive end Andy Mattingly was a factor against the run and pass. He often worked against Steven Ayers, who is coming off an illness and was filling in at left offensive tackle for regular starter Vaughn Lesuma (sore back).

Myron Beck, bidding to start at safety, picked off Rogers after outside linebacker Kendrick Dunn deflected the pass. Middle linebacker Greg Trent made big plays against the run and pass.

"I think our defense is really coming together," Ahmu said. "Looking at the film, the good things that we saw from this last scrimmage (Saturday), the linebackers are getting their drops (into pass coverage) really well."

The Cougars return nine starters, including Ahmu, but from a porous 2007 defense.

"I think we're better just because the new coaches have got a whole new system," Ahmu said. "On the drops on passing plays and third-down plays, we're seeing a lot more turnovers.

"People are where they need to be. We're all trusting each other."

Reserve wide receiver Reid McEllrath made two fine catches while being covered by junior cornerback Devin Giles. A starter all last season, Giles, who missed spring practice to shore up his classwork, has spent most of camp with the No. 2 defense, even though potential starting cornerback Markus Dawes has seen limited action while recovering from shoulder surgery.

Wulff was speaking in general terms and not about Giles in particular when he said, "Just because somebody was starting a year ago doesn't make them the best player today."

Defensive tackle Andy Roof and cornerback Brandon Jones (sitting out the '08 season after transferring from Cal) had their session cut short with injuries.

WULFF COMPLIMENTED THE Cougars on their improving ability to deal with the new coaching staff's more demanding practices. However, he also continues to question the severity of some injuries that have kept numerous players from practicing the first two weeks of fall camp.

"We have more little nicks and bruises than we probably like to have," Wulff said, "and we're probably not playing through enough of them." Wulff offered specific praise for Gary Rogers -- "I'm happy with Gary's growth as a quarterback and leader" and the WSU defense -- "We're starting to find some solutions". Both had their moments at Tuesday's practice.

AFTER BEING PICKED to finish last in the Pac-10 in most preseason forecasts, the Cougars have finally been picked to finish first.

In total offense, that is.

Sporting News, which has recently dropped the 'The' from their title, predicts that the Cougars or Arizona will lead the Pac-10 in total offense.

"Unlike the Cougars," the magazine added, "the Wildcats will actually make it to a lower-tier bowl game."

A smart aleck CF.C Editor was heard to observe, "I guess SN thinks the Cougs are going to an upper-tier bowl game, then."

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