The Cougars surrendered 409.58 yards per game last season, which ranked 82nd among FBS schools. While not impressive, it was a substantial improvement from 2010 (118th) and their best ranking since 2006 (81st).
Perhaps more importantly, WSU features its most experienced group in years. Nine starters from the Apple Cup will return -- a number that does not include middle linebacker C.J. Mizell, who started nine games.
Here is an overview of the Cougars' 2012 defense:
Notable losses: LB Alex Hoffman-Ellis, 6-1, 226, graduated; LB Mike Ledgerwood, 6-1, 232, graduated; DL Brandon Rankin, 6-5, 287, graduated.
Top returnees: LB Louis Bland, 5-10, 221, sr.; S Deone Bucannon, 6-1, 187, jr.; DE Adam Coerper, 6-4, 262, sr.; CB Damante Horton, 5-10, 173, jr.; LB Sekope Kaufusi, 6-3, 236, jr.; DT Anthony Laurenzi, 6-3, 297, sr.; S Casey Locker, 5-11, 197, jr.; DE Travis Long, 6-4, 252, sr.; LB C.J. Mizell, 6-2, 228, jr.; DT Kalafitoni Pole, 6-1, 296, so.; DE Jordan Pu'u-Robinson, 6-4, 269, jr.; CB Daniel Simmons, 5-10, 193, sr.; S Tyree Toomer, 5-11, 199, sr.; CB Nolan Washington, 5-11, 184, jr.; DE Lenard Williams, 6-2, 250, sr.
Up-and-comers: LB Cyrus Coen, 6-0, 205, so.; DE Xavier Cooper, 6-4, 268, fr.; DE Ian Knight, 6-2, 240, jr.; DE/LB Logan Mayes, 6-3, 230, so.; LB Darryl Monroe, 6-1, 215, fr.; LB Chester Sua, 6-1, 226, so.; CB Spencer Waseem, 5-9, 167, fr.
Look for: Travis Long has been a starter at left end since his first game as a true freshman. Last year, he led WSU in tackles-for-loss (12) and sacks (four) and arguably was the team's best player on defense. Considering that Long never redshirted, he might have even more room for development as many players his age are just becoming upperclassmen. Long leads a defensive line that showed substantial improvement against the run in 2011. The Cougars still surrendered 4.4 yards per carry, but that was more than a yard better (5.59) than 2010. WSU loses nine-game starter Brandon Rankin out of its rotation at defensive tackle, but returns veteran Anthony Laurenzi and Kalafitoni Pole, who started three games as a redshirt freshman. But there is little experienced depth behind them. Justin Clayton had 11 tackles last year as a sophomore. Former coach Paul Wulff said Xavier Cooper would have played in 2011, but he was forced to redshirt as a partial qualifier. Cooper could play at either end or tackle. David Davis and T.J. Poloai, both of whom redshirted last season, likely will get looks in the rotation.
The depth at end is much better as Adam Coerper, Logan Mayes, Jordan Pu'u-Robinson, Lenard Williams and possibly Cooper figure to battle to serve as Long's counterpart. Ian Knight, who redshirted after transferring from Butler County Community College in Kansas, and freshman Darryl Paulo could certainly factor into the rotation, as well.
The linebacking corps might be the strength of the defense even with the graduation of Alex Hoffman-Ellis, who had a breakout season in 2011.
Hoffman-Ellis finished with a team-high 88 stops and added 11 tackles-for-loss. But the Cougars return middle linebacker Mizell (56 tackles) and outside linebacker Sekope Kaufusi (42). Chester Sua, who made four starts and finished with 22 tackles as a true freshman, could emerge as the leading candidate to replace Hoffman-Ellis.
But new WSU coach Mike Leach has offered Junior College All-American Chris Young, who had 111 tackles and 30 tackles-for-loss at Arizona Western, and he likely would compete for a starting job if he commits. Scout.com reports that Young will visit both the Cougars and Oregon State before making a decision. Freshman Darryl Monroe, who torn his Achilles tendon in the season-opener against Idaho State, and veterans Louis Bland, who has not played since 2009 because of ongoing knee problems, freshman Tana Pritchard, Darren Markle and Eric Oertel also return to compete for playing time.
Linebacker has been a recruiting emphasis under Leach. Since his hiring last month, Keith Ewing and Khalil Pettway both have committed and three-star recruits Jeremiah Allison and Kache Palacio are visiting this weekend. All could compete for immediate playing time.
Shoring up: New defensive coordinator Mike Breske, who held that position last season at Montana, bristled at the notion that his teams constantly blitz in an article last year. But his units are aggressive.
It starts with a pass rush. Without more pressure, it will be difficult to achieve success. While no one on the roster will make WSU fans forget D.D. Acholonu (16.5 sacks in 2003), it is not difficult to envision Long doubling his total from last season and Williams, who had just one sack in 2011, showing significant improvement now that he a year of Pac-12 experience. The Cougars also could benefit from a linebacker (Kaufusi? Sua? Young?) with an ability to get to the quarterback.
All three cornerbacks who started last season -- Damante Horton, Daniel Simmons and Nolan Washington -- return. The same applies to safeties Deone Bucannon, Casey Locker and Tyree Toomer.
Horton started every game at cornerback and has playmaking ability -- he finished with a team-high four interceptions. Bucannon also had three. But the defensive backfield needs to show substantial improvement next season. WSU's ranked 111th in FBS in pass efficiency defense.
Some of that can be attributed to a paltry pass rush, but coverage -- particularly from the safeties -- was an issue as 6-foot-5 Nelson Rosario showed when he had 120 yards on just three receptions to help UCLA to a 28-25 come-from-behind win Oct. 8 against the Cougars.
Wulff left a good number of defensive backs on the roster, which has left players such as Tracy Clark, Tyrone Duckett and Anthony Carpenter providing depth. Cornerback Spencer Waseem also is back after his freshman season was ruined with a knee injury in September.
Keys to the season: There might not be a more overrated statistic in football than time of possession these days. After all, Oregon has been a dominant program in recent years despite ranking among the worst teams in FBS in that statistic. But combining Breske's aggressive scheme with the probability that WSU often will hold the ball for less than half of the game makes depth important.
Long has emerged as one of the best defensive ends in the conference, but the Cougars also need multiple players to break out, or at least turn the proverbial corner, next season.
Notable losses: KR Isiah Barton, 6-1, 187, graduated; P Dan Wagner, 6-0, 211, graduated.
Top returnees: LS Alex Den Bleyker, 5-10, 224, so.; PR Leon Brooks, 5-7, 166, jr.; KR Henry Eaddy, 5-8, 163, fr.; K Andrew Furney, 5-10, 231, jr.; P/K Alex Gauper, 6-4, 229, sr.; KR Marcus Mason, 5-9, 176, so.; H David Gilbertson, 6-1, 201, jr. LS Zach Koepp, 6-2, 238, sr.
Up-and-comers: K Mike Bowlin, 6-4, 204, jr.; KR/PR Rahmel Dockery, 5-10, 170, fr.
Look for: Special teams will be a significant emphasis for Leach. He hired Eric Russell, regarded as one of the best special teams coaches in college football, away from Tennessee. Jeff Choate, who also helped coach that unit at Boise State, was also hired by Leach.
With the exception of Andrew Furney, who made 14 of 16 field goals last season, and the kickoff return unit, special teams generally were not a strength in 2011 for the Cougars.
Russell, who has fielded several top coverage units, will go to work immediately to fix those teams after WSU allowed an FBS-worst four kickoff returns for touchdowns. The Cougs also had but one touchback.
The Cougars should be near the 85-scholarship limit, so finding capable players should not be an issue. It also will help if Bowlin, who averaged 64.1 yards per kickoff with 14 touchbacks last year at Saddleback College in California, can provide some consistency in that area. WSU also needs to replace punter Dan Wagner, who averaged 40.8 yards per boot. Gauper might be the top candidate.
The graduation of Isiah Barton, who averaged 24.6 yards per kickoff, leaves a void. But Theron West averaged 26.9 yards per kickoff return at Los Angeles Harbor College this season and Henry Eaddy and Marcus Mason also have some experience returning kicks. Incoming freshman Rahmel Dockery is expected to challenge for playing time on that unit, as well. Dockery and West also could press incumbent Leon Brooks, who did not have a punt return longer than eight yards in 2011.
Keys to the season: The Cougars gave away too many points on special teams last year. With the exception of Furney's field goals and kickoff returns, there needs to be much more consistency all around.
Click here for our preview on the 2012 Offense
2012 WSU football outlook: DEFENSE & STeams
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