Avoiding 800-pound gorillas in Spokane

ERIC RUSSELL

SPOKANE -- Eric Russell, Washington State's first-year assistant head football coach and special teams guru, was the featured speaker at Monday's Cougar Club luncheon in Spokane and did his best to confine his talk to the Cougs' upcoming game with UCLA in Pullman. But the 800-pound gorilla in the room, WSU's pratfall at Utah, kept rearing its head no matter how hard anyone tried to ignore it.

"We're trying, as a staff, to move past the Utah game," Russell said before delving into the intricacies of special teams play. "There's nothing we can learn from that game and we're not showing it to the team."

In fact, this was first Cougar Club luncheon this season in which the guest coach did not bring video from the team's most recent game.

Instead, Russell rolled through breakdowns of UCLA's special teams units and discussed how he would prepare his various units for Saturday's 7:30 p.m. kick-off (ESPN2) with the 7-2 Bruins.

"Nobody's happy, and right now we're dealing with expectations," he said. "Obviously we're not going to a bowl game and our seniors aren't going to have an opportunity to play in one and we're not going to get that extra month of practice after the regular season. But we do have three games left and we're going to put everything we have into playing them.

"I can guarantee you that Mike Leach is down there right now looking for answers. We're going to keep on believing in this team and these players, and we're going to keep going all out in our recruiting. We're looking for solutions, not blame."

The fallout from the game has dominated headlines. It started with Leach's harsh post-game summary of himself, his staff and his players, and continued today with news of star receiver Marquess Wilson's departure/suspension, and ongoing back-channel reports of some sort of lockerroom showdown between some defensive players and coaches at halftime at Utah, which have been short on confirmed detail.

Russell said there was a game similar to the loss in Salt Lake City when he was on Leach's staff at Texas Tech.

"We had a game with Texas A&M that we thought we were ready for and they came into Lubbock and it wasn't pretty," he said. "We wound up going to a bowl game that year."

Russell said that, as soon as the team arrived in Pullman Saturday night, the coaching staff headed to their respective offices and began working to fix what went wrong.

"We've been trying to figure out where things broke down," he said. "We even got the team together Sunday and had a practice session that concentrated on effort, because effort is not a God-given talent."

Russell joked that he was a week late in addressing the luncheon crowd.

"If I'd been here last week, you would have seen that we had been ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 in special teams for three straight weeks," he quipped. "But I wasn't asked last week, and Saturday we gave up a kick-off return for a touchdown and that was enough to knock us from first all the way down to fifth."

The new overall No. 1 in special teams? UCLA, which comes into Pullman ranked third in net punting, fifth in punt return average, second in kick-off coverage, third in kick-off returns and seventh in field goals.

From a personnel standpoint, the Bruins bring a few new challenges.

"For one thing, their punter (Jeff Locke) is a left-footed kicker," Russell said. "You wouldn't think that would make much of a difference, but the ball spins opposite of the way it normally spins so we're going to have to get Travis Long out there this week and kick some left-footed punts at our guys so they can get used to it.

"He's got a great leg. Of his 62 kick-offs, 52 have been touch-backs."

Asked about Cougar punter Michael Bowlin, who's kicks tend to tumble end-over-end instead of spiraling, Russell shook his head.

"You know, he doesn't kick that way in practice," he said. "We're still trying to figure out what it is that makes him kick that way in a game. Right now we're working on fundamentals, and by that I mean just catching the snap because he's having a little trouble with that."

The coach said he's been pleased that Leach gives him the go-ahead to use starters on special teams, especially on coverage units.

"It's one thing to not use them on returns because that's hit or miss," he said. "But especially on coverage, you want to have your best guys out there. I mean, if you don't want to play a guy on defense because you don't trust him in a confined space, why would you trust him on a wide-open field?"

And then the gorilla popped up again.

After a half hour discussing special teams, Russell stopped, mid-sentence and asked "Who's bored with all this talk about (special) teams? I didn't have many highlights to show!"

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