Five spring ball questions on defense

THE COUGS' NEW 3-4 defense will take the field on March 22 when spring drills begin. With the new scheme comes new questions, with five of the more pressing questions on the defensive side of the ball presented here…

1. How quickly this spring will the Cougs start to assimilate all the nuances of Mike Breske's 3-4?
Not all 3-4 defenses are created equal. There are loads and loads of tweaks and subtle differences that can abound, and the questions will remain on exactly what Mike Breske has in mind until spring ball is underway.

One of the bigger ones -- what coverage(s) is Breske planning to pair with the 3-4, since the coverage determines what the linebackers are asked to do. The early word seems to be primarily Cover-4 but that too will be hashed out in the spring. And whether it's Cover-4 or something else, can safeties Deone Bucannon, Casey Locker and Tyree Toomer show this spring they're ready to improve on an up and down 2011 campaign?

2. Speaking of linebackers, those on the roster figure to have plenty of opportunities to earn their stripes this spring. With two of the three 2011 starting linebacker spots now vacated, who claims what are now three open jobs?
WSU already had a need for numbers at 'backer before C.J. Mizell was dismissed and Louis Bland gave up the sport due to injury. That's why WSU signed five linebackers in the 2012 class, (Kache Palacio, Jeremiah Allison, Keith Ewiing, Khalil Pettway and Jacob Tuivaiave.)

Figuring out who the starters might be in 2011 under 'backers coach Jeff Choate, and where they might play, holds a lot of intrigue this spring. Some of the main candidates this spring figure to be Sekope Kaufusi, Darren Markle, Logan Mayes, Darryl Monroe, Chester Sua and walk-on Cyrus Coen.

And will Breske's 3-4 feature undersized defensive end types at linebacker, or will they be more along the lines of overgrown strong safeties? Will Kaufusi, the Cougs' best returning linebacker, line up at one of the two inside positions -- provided he's fully recovered from shoulder surgery? And Mayes' progress this spring could be another storyline to watch here -- unless of course he ends up becoming a full-fledged defensive end.

3. To blitz or not to blitz?
Breske, at Montana, liked to blitz a fair amount and via a lot of different angles and packages. But you can't blitz if you don't have corners who can lock it up, and WSU has yet to show they have two corners who can consistently turn the key.

Daniel Simmons looked to be on that glide path at one time but injuries have interrupted his progress. Damante Horton (9 starts) and Nolan Washington (6) are the other two in conjunction with Simmons (7) who were in the starting lineup at corner in 2011. Will one or more of the trio take the next step up the ladder this spring?

Or will Brandon Golden, Tracy Clark and/or Spencer Waseem emerge and shoot up the depth chart?

And even if two corners do progress to the point WSU can turn loose their blitzers more, will those doing the blitzing get through blocks better than they have the past few seasons? Even the best corners in college football will eventually lose contain and WSU in recent years simply has not had a strong enough pass rush, oftentimes due to blitzing linebackers and safeties getting picked off.

All that said, the Cougs on defense still figure to be aggressive, says Breske. How's that? Blitzing isn't the only form of aggression on defense. Takeaways, for example, are another.

4. The nose tackle in the 3-4 has to occupy more than one blocker and plug lanes but what about the d-ends?
Will the DEs have 2-gap responsibilities under Breske? Does Breske like larger guys on the edge, something along the lines of undersized d-tackle types? Or will Brekse go with the smaller but more athletic ends who can excel when the Cougs run, for example, the zone blitz?

Some on the message boards have speculated Travis Long could move back in the box to linebacker in the 3-4. Anything's possible but it's hard to see that from this vantage point. Asking Long to zone drop and cover the nearest inside receiver 10-12 yards is one thing. He's athletic enough to do that. But to ask him to go vertical with a wide receiver from the outside or cover that high hole as an inside 'backer -- that might not be the best fit. Besides, do you really want to take the best d-end you have and move him somewhere else?

One of the other key d-linemen to watch this spring is Adam Coerper. He came on in the final third of the season before injury ended his season on the last play of the Utah game. Cougar fans would also love to see Jordan Pu'u-Robinson, Xavier Cooper, Lenard Williams and Ian Knight raise their games this spring.

And oh by the way, about that nose tackle spot.. Is it Anthony Laurenzi? Is it Kalafitoni Pole? Or are both so good that one lines up on the nose and the other is one of the d-end spots? Or is there a high volume rotation going on at the nose?

5. And that leads to really the big question -- it's a new day under a new defensive staff, so who will emerge this spring?
This article is not meant to mention every player on the depth chart at every position, though many who might take that next corner-turning step are mentioned above. With a new coaching staff, and player improvement from year to year, there are undoubtedly some lesser talked-about players who will make a charge up the depth chart this spring.

To toss out a few final thoughts on the subject -- Bucannon has first team all-conference potential, but will it be realized in 2012? Keep an eye on Waseem, he might be ready to make waves. Coen looked sharp last season in spot duty and if Breske goes the way of smaller, overgrown strong safety types at outside linebacker, Coen might turn some heads. Darryl Paulo, who redshirted last year, is another many think has a bright future on the d-line.

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