DURING POLITICAL SEASON, the outcome of some races requires weeks of recounts to determine a winner. The only difference between that and the defensive-tackle position at WSU is that every week is a new election -- and the outcome often changes. Meanwhile, a true freshman who is redshirting might have found a new position.
Cougars coach Paul Wulff said during his Thursday news conference that junior Toby Turpin likely will start alongside classmate Bernard Wolfgramm at defensive tackle. Redshirt freshman Dan Spitz started against Cal, but was replaced by Turpin last week.
Spitz, who also has played defensive end, has made five starts this season, while the 6-foot-5, 284-pound Turpin has made four. Wulff said he suspects the battle for the starting position will last for the remainder of the season. WSU (1-7 overall, 0-5 conference) has three more games after it plays at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Arizona.
"We would love for someone to step up and be the guy and just be the player week in and week out," Wulff said. "We need more guys to step up and take hold of positions. Toby has played well the last few weeks and if he can maintain that, he will play a lot."
Regardless of whom starts, Wulff said both will see plenty of playing time because he frequently rotates defensive linemen. True freshmen right end Travis Long is the only player to have started every game on the defensive line.
He said 6-foot-3 Casey Hamlett will start again opposite of Long. Hamlett, a junior who transferred from Western Washington after its football program disbanded, replaced senior Jesse Feagin during last week's 40-14 loss against Notre Dame. Wulff said Feagin broke his hand Oct. 24 against California and is unable to play.
THE DEFENSE ALSO will be without junior strong safety Chima Nwachukwu, who suffered an ankle injury against the Irish. Wulff said Nwachukwu's ankle is improving and he hopes he can practice again by Tuesday. He said Nwachukwu brings "great leadership," but "it's just one of those situations where he's quite a ways from even dressing up." Nwachukwu is second of the team with 56 tackles.
Redshirt freshman Jay Matthews will start in his place, and Wulff said walk-on redshirt freshman Kyle McCartney and possibly junior Myron Beck will serve as backups.
Another player who likely will not play is senior tight end Tony Thompson. He suffered a stinger against Notre Dame and then was dinged in practice this week -- Wulff said he is "highly, highly questionable. He's got a history of it (concussions), so we're being cautious." If Thompson cannot play, Wulff said walk-on senior Zach Tatman would make his first start with redshirt freshman Skylar Stormo backing him up. Thompson had moved more to an h-back/slot role the last few weeks.
Two players Wulff said who are better health-wise are senior linebacker Andy Mattingly and sophomore offensive lineman Steven Ayers. Mattingly has started every game, but injured his knee against Cal. Wulff said he has been able to practice all week.
MICAH HANNAM HAS started every game of Wulff's two-year regime at right tackle, but the 6-foot-4, 290-pound junior always seems to be in a battle for his starting position. Ayers essentially is the Swiss Army Knife of the Cougars' offensive line with the versatility to play both guard and tackle positions, but now that several players are healthy, he is battling for Hannam's job. Wulff said that relates to Hannam's lack of consistency.
"We need better production at a number of positions," he said. "You look at this team and there's several younger players. As we keep moving forward ... these guys are going to take a lot of steps. Micah needs that competition."
The rest of the line appears set with senior Kenny Alfred at center, sophomore B.J. Guerra and junior Zack Williams playing guard and redshirt freshman Tyson Pencer at left tackle.
Freshman Arthur Burns, who is listed at 5 foot 11, 206 pounds, was moved from running back to linebacker earlier this week. Wulff said Burns, who is redshirting, could stay on defense.
"As we continue to improve our team speed, he can give us a tremendous amount of speed on defense," Wulff said. "He's got some tools that can make him a good player on defense."
Wulff said senior Dwight Tardy likely will start at running back. Tardy fell behind sophomore Logwone Mitz and true freshman Carl Winston on the depth chart and had just one carry against Cal. But he had a team-high 72 yards on eight carries against the Irish.
Tardy, who has a team-best 258 yards on 65 carries, is attempting to become the first player in program history to lead the team in rushing four consecutive years.