The CougZone spring rundown just keeps on going. Time to take a look at the interior defensive line as well as punter and placekicker...
Odell Howard - SR, 6'4, 295
Ropati Pitoitua - JR, 6'8, 299
Aaron Johnson - RJR, 6'6, 309
Matt Eichelberger - RSO, 6'3, 314
Fevaea'i Ahmu - SO, 6'1, 284
Last season, the Cougars struggled up front defending against the run and getting any pass pressure from inside. A big reason was the August injury to Ropati Pitoitua. When Pitoitua was finally able to get back on the field, even playing at substantially less than 100% he was able to help dramatically improve the Cougar run defense. The 2005 season was all but a write off for Pitoitua and he should be primed for a big year in 2006. A healthy and effective Ropati does big things for the Cougs and the coaches are well aware of it. They will look to use spring to get Pitoitua back into the full swing of things and ready to head into summer confident and with an axe to grind. Pitoitua is one of the players on the roster the coaches may limit in order to make sure he stays healthy.
Fevaea'i Ahmu was forced into a starting role last season after Pitoitua's injury. Last season, Ahmu was a true freshman and had the expected ups and downs on the field. What Ahmu was able to show is that when he gets the chance he has the ability to make a play and is a scrapper. The experience from 2005 will help him tremendously in 2006. As a true freshman, Ahmu found himself thrown up against guys who will play in the NFL in 2006 or 2007. He learned some tough lessons. Having had time to reflect on those lessons, both Ahmu and the coaches will look for improvement on his techniques and tactics. Ahmu established himself last season as part of a capable rotation along with Aaron Johnson. Johnson is a big boy - almost as big as Pitoitua - and his best football is very much ahead of him. Johnson was very much a pup the last two seasons, and is one of the players with the potential for a break out year this fall. With Pitoitua back fully in the mix, the Cougars will look to develop a rotation mixing and matching Pitoitua, Johnson, and Ahmu.
Spring will be a big opportunity for Matt Eichelberger to make a statement. Eichelberger is a talented player who has faced a learning curve and the need to drop some weight. In high school, he was just bigger and stronger than his opposition and was able to overwhelm and succeed. The Pac-10 requires more in terms of both endurance and technique, and time in the weightroom and with the training staff has really helped Eichelberger. A big spring would very much put Eichelberger into the rotation going into summer and the coaches would love to see him take that step. For whatever reason, Eichelberger appears to have the edge on Odell Howard. After a sophomore year that showed a lot of promise, Howard more or less dropped off the map last season and rarely played. What happens with Howard this spring should very much indicate what will happen with him for his senior year. It would be great for all involved if Howard set the stage for a redemption senior season like that put up by Josh Shavies a bit back. Howard has the ability to contribute and spring will likely tell whether he will or not in 2006.
Loren Langley - JR, 5'8, 151
Darryl Blunt - RSO, 6', 178
Fritz Brayton - RFR, 6'3, 184
It's not all that unusual for a player to have a sophomore season slump, and Loren Langley fell victim to just that. After a solid freshman year, Langley struggled at times last season. By the Apple Cup, the misses had clearly got into Langley's head. There aren't really any contenders he must battle for the job, so Langley should actually have a good opportunity to get himself settled in and focus on fixing the mistakes from last season. If Langley struggles in spring, it will be reason to worry as he's basically all the Cougs have got for placekicking.
The Cougs lose Kyle Basler to graduation, leaving the punting spot wide open. The contenders look to be Darryl Blunt and Fritz Brayton. Both players are walk-ons, but Blunt brings with him experience. Before transferring to WSU at the beginning of last season, Blunt spent his freshman season as the punter for Portland State. It's a toss up as to who will come out on top, but Blunt may have the edge going in.