Cougs 2011: Sizing up D, schedule and more

PULLMAN -- Inch by inch, the Washington State football team improved on defense in 2010. Unfortunately, WSU still gave up far too many yards in the process. The Cougars were better than a year ago in all four major team defense statistics -- points allowed, total yards allowed, passing yards allowed and rushing yards allowed. But work clearly still remains.

Washington State still ranks 100th or lower in all four statistics in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

On the bright side, these Cougar defenders are athletic -- and young. And there's nothing like experience and the passage of time to help step up your game. A look ahead at the 2011 Cougar defense suggests that big steps are coming. For the WSU program to fully turn the corner and get to a bowl game next year, that must happen.

Just like on offense, the defense will return most of its top players next season, going by the depth chart, eight starters return. Similar returns are in the offing for special teams. Read on for outlooks on the defense, special teams and schedule for 2011.

Top returnees:
DE Travis Long, LB Louis Bland (redshirted in '10 after starting in '09), SS Deone Bucannon, MLB C.J. Mizell, CB Daniel Simmons, FS Tyree Toomer, OLB Sekope Kaufusi, OLB Alex Hoffman-Ellis, CB Nolan Washington, CB Aire Justin, DT Anthony Laurenzi, DL Brandon Rankin, MLB Mike Ledgerwood.

DT Kalafitoni Pole, DE Jordan Pu'u Robinson, CB/S Anthony Carpenter, CB Damante Horton, DL Justin Clayton, S Casey Locker, OLB Eric Oertel, MLB Darren Markle, DE Steven Hoffart.

Notable losses: OLB Myron Beck, DE Kevin Kooyman, DT Bernard Wolfgramm, SS/CB Chima Nwachukwu, DE Casey Hamlett.

Look for:
The Cougars have improved their speed and strength on defense substantially since Paul Wulff and his staff took over in 2008, but they could still use a boost in both areas. After all, WSU's average per-game yields this year were 36 points, 220 rushing yards, 247 rushing yards and 467 total yards.

WSU showed progress at times on the D-line, where the Cougars the previous two seasons were routinely dominated. However, Long is the closest thing to a proven standout on the line. He registered 51 tackles, 10 ½ tackles for losses and four sacks to earn all-conference honorable mention this season, and WSU needs a stronger presence inside.

Coaches believe DT Pole could be a worthy companion for Long next year, and junior college transfers could further bolster the line. Pu'u Robinson, who sat out this season due to knee surgery, could team up with Long for a strong pass-rushing tandem. Rankin, the JC defensive player of the year in 2008, moved inside and was replaced in the starting lineup by Laurenzi late in the campaign. He continued to see time in rotation, and shined in that reserve role against OSU, but the expectations were higher for him. There has been some talk about moving Rankin from tackle to end, his preferred position and the spot from which he dominated the California JC ranks.

Mizell overcame a slow start to show everyone why he was one of the most highly recruited linebackers in the nation two years ago. Taking a year off from football was glaringly obvious at times, however. Kaufusi, another linebacker with considerable promise, also paid the price for inexperience at times -- other times, he looked like a star in the making. Hoffman-Ellis dealt with back problems all season, but still finished second on the team with 81 tackles after leading the 2009 squad with 84. If he returns to health, Hoffman-Ellis should be able to utilize his impressive speed to blitz more. Add a fully healthy Bland back into the mix and things get considerably brighter.

The Cougars went with freshmen and sophomores in the secondary most of the season. Mistakes were inevitable, but the experience should prove invaluable in the future. Bucannon replaced Nwachukwu in the starting lineup in the second half of the season and led the Cougars with 84 tackles. He also had two interceptions, seven pass breakups, plenty of highlight-reel, big-time hits … but still too many missed tackles.

Toomer, another big hitter who missed on too many tackles, returns with Bucannon at the safety positions. Washington and Simmons were the starting cornerbacks until Justin replaced the injured Simmons late in the season. All impressed at times, but improvement is necessary.

Special teams have been anything but at WSU in recent years, but the Cougars currently lead the FBS in kickoff returns defense with a 17-yard average. NCAA stats don't become final until the end of the bowl season.

The Cougars also rank an impressive 10th in net punting (39.3), thanks largely to the powerful right leg of Reid Forrest. The senior from Ephrata ranks ninth with 45.4 yards per punt. But Forrest and kickoff specialist Nico Grasu are graduating. Freshman Andrew Furney took over field-goal kicking duties from Grasu during the season and displayed a strong leg and got better as the season went along.

WSU's special teams were loaded with freshmen. Wulff lauded stalwarts like Jack Wilson, Kyle McCartney, Bennett Bontemps and Eric Oertel, along with the work of first-year special teams coach Dave Ungerer. Also returning are primary return men Isiah Barton (22.1 on kickoffs) and Aire Justin (4.8 on punts), the latter of whom must better corral punts if he is to continue that role in 2011. The biggest question-marks entering ''11 figure to be finding successors to Forrest at punter and uber-talented long-snapper Zach Enyeart. Dan Wagner has been Forrest's understudy the last three seasons and Travis Long was Enyeart's backup this season.

THE 2011 SCHEDULE The Sagarin computer rankings list WSU's 2010 schedule as the third-toughest in the country -- that won't be the case next year. The Cougars open with home games against Idaho State and UNLV. Then comes a more challenging yet still winnable road test at San Diego State, a bye, then Pac-12 road games with Colorado and UCLA -- neither of which is expected to be a great team in 2011.

All three Pac-12 visitors to Martin Stadium (Stanford, Arizona State and Utah) should provide major challenges. WSU's other conference home game pits the Cougars against Oregon State at Seattle's Qwest Field. Washington State dominated the Beavers last month in a 31-14 win at Corvallis, who finished 5-7 this season after being picked to finish third in the conference by the Pac-10 media.

So … beat Idaho State, UNLV, Colorado and UCLA, and you're two-thirds of the way toward the six wins necessary to become bowl eligible. And if you combine wins over those four teams with a victory at San Diego State, suddenly WSU is 5-0 and the talk of the town.

And the state.

And the region.

And maybe even the nation.

If you missed our preview of the 2011 Cougar offense, CLICK HERE.


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