SPRING BALL DAY 6: Cougs get uber-physical

MITZ AND HODGDON HEAD DOWNFIELD

PULLMAN -- Saturday saw the best practice of the spring session to date, with new levels of intensity and physicality on display in Martin Stadium. Under sunny skies, the running game was a focal point as Cougar running backs showcased their talent in what has become the most exciting and competitive position battle this spring. And could a fullback be seen more in the Wazzu backfield this year?

The Cougs are missing some bodies this spring but that didn't seem to matter much on Saturday. It was the most physical practice to date and collisions were both often and loud.

The Washington State running backs accounted for the majority of the yards gained by the offense during the scrimmage portion of Saturday's practice -- even when the defense was playing to stop the run, the backs ripped off several nice gainers.

James Montgomery, who had a forgettable outing the practice before, had two touchdown runs from about 20 yards out on Saturday, and on the second one he broke through two tackles to score.

Logwone Mitz showed his power when he took the ball up the middle, breaking several tackles in the process on a 20-plus yards scoring jaunt.

Marcus Richmond took a run to the outside for even more yardage -- over 30 yards -- and ran over cornerback Shane Thomas in the process.

Mitz also had a big hit on Toby Turpin that, despite being listed as 60 pounds lighter than Turpin, knocked the defensive tackle to the ground.

Even with the absence of senior Chris Ivory (hamstring), the Cougar running back depth was impressive on Saturday. The amount of talent at the position has lead to something that every coach wants to see during practice: intense competition, and Steve Broussard sees a lot of it.

"It's good to have, competition. I think that's what I breed, that what I preach and it's just these guys buying into it...When your number is called, I expect you to perform," said Broussard, who also noted the improvement in ball security, something the backs have been working on a lot after consecutive practices where the Cougars coughed up the football.

When asked about the strengths his players bring to the position, Broussard had praise for each one of his players -- Richmond brings the most speed and route running ability to the position, while Montgomery shows the most quickness. Tardy is still getting healthy from his offseason knee surgery, but Broussard said "this is the best I've seen him."

As for Mitz, "He's powerful," said Broussard. "He has a little bit of deceptive speed, but he has much more lower body power than all of them."

Broussard said the Cougars may use a fullback more often this year in order to get more backs on the field. Mitz, Richmond and walk-on Remy Martin, said Broussard, have all made strides in learning lead blocking and other nuances of the running back position -- something that's of course a requisite for a fullback or h-back.

He added that the entire stable has good hands coming out of the backfield.

THE THROWING PORTION of practice and skelly drills was a good one for the tight ends, leading to speculation the Cougars might not have to too much about losing two seniors to graduation last season.

Tony Thompson rarely drops passes and on Saturday had a couple on nice catches plus runs after the catch.

Zach Tatman turned in a highlight reel leaping catch with blanket coverage by Deon Ford -- the play even had defensive coaches praising Tatman, whose expertise is in the blocking game. But Tatman on Saturday looked comfortable as a receiver.

The tight ends accounted for close to half of the receptions on the day and look to have developed good rapport with quarterback Kevin Lopina. Walk-on Aaron Gehring has shown good speed thus far but had a rough practice on Saturday, dropping a perfectly thrown pass from Lopina that would have netted over 20 yards.

At wideout, Kevin Norrell pulled in a couple great catches in the middle of several defenders -- he has shown an uncanny ability to find the openings against the defense this spring.

DEFENSIVELY, THE COUGARS struggled against the run but several players still turned in some big hits and very nice tackles.

Louis Bland and Tyree Toomer each had some nice open field stops to prevent large gains, and defensive tackle Dan Spitz showed off some nice pass rushing moves by turning in "sacks" on consecutive plays.

Defensive end Corey Mackay continues to get a lot of reps this spring and on Saturday, he turned in a couple of tackles for losses with swift backside pursuit of the running backs, and also "sacked" the quarterback on one play.

Western Washington transfer walk-on Casey Hamlett batted down a pass in pursuit of Lopina on another play, and has spent a fair amount of time getting reps with the ones at the right defensive end position at times.

THE HIT OF the day was delivered by cornerback Daniel Simmons, who on one snap lined up across from Johnny Forzani less than five yards from the goal line. He timed the hit perfectly with the ball, and knocked Forzani back 3 yards. To his credit, Forzani made the tough grab -- but Simmons stopped him for no gain.

Paul Wulff was pleased by how the Cougars showed up prepared to get after it on Saturday.

"We played real physical football today...It's the kind of style we want to build off of...on defense we saw some really nice tackles," said Wulff.

ILLNESS AND INJURY continue to claim players, however, especially on the defensive side of the ball. At safety, Xavier Hicks showed up to practice in street clothes (presumably with a case of the flu) and LeAndre Daniels (high ankle sprain) and Jay Matthews (shoulder) sat out the session. Indeed, the Cougars were left with just three players at safety and only 21 suited up Saturday on the entire defense.

Tyree Toomer switched back to safety from corner to compensate for the injuries -- but he was then shaken up a bit on one play, leaving the Cougs with just Chima Nwachukwu and Kyle McCartney to man the position.

Wulff after the practice talked about his goals for the 15-practice spring session.

"To establish some confidence on offense and defense -- in terms of getting really comfortable with a couple things we do really well. A couple run plays, a couple route combinations. On defense, a couple fronts a couple coverages...(to get that down) at the end of spring, I think I would be really happy with that," said Wulff.

NOTABLE NOTE:
Several players took time away from practice for academics, and Wulff listed Michael Willis, Devin Giles, Bernard Wolfgramm and Ivory as those who are spending extra time at the academic resource center. Wolfgramm and Ivory were already being held out because of injury.

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