Linebackers in spring: What we've learned

COMING INTO THE SPRING, multiple questions surrounded the Cougar linebacking corps. Here's a closer look at what we've seen so far through the first eight practice sessions..

The group is definitely young and short on experience. They do seem to be gelling of late, but there's precious little senior or upperclassmen leadership, a situation exacerbated by the departures of Sekope Kaufusi and C.J. Mizell. Plus, the group is still learning the new 3-4 scheme under linebackers coaches Jeff Choate (SAM, MIK, WIL) and Paul Volero (BUCK), and defensive coordinator Mike Breske. Still, the Cougar coaching staff has seemed pleased for the most part with where they're at.

Headed in, Breske took pains to say this spring was not going to be about slotting a depth chart but rather, about teaching and development. With that said, if the season started tomorrow, the starters from this vantage point would be Travis Long (BUCK), Eric Oertel (SAM), Darryl Monroe (MIK) and Chester Sua (WIL). That does not, however, mean that others aren't in the mix. They are.

First, though, the discussion starts with Long at the BUCK, who is a virtual starting lock. Volero has to feel good about having Long in his back pocket. Some wondered how well Long would adjust to playing with his hand up but he's made it about as seamless as possible in the early going. And the more he plays there, the more comfortable and instinctive he'll continue to become. One thing that remains to be seen, and it probably won't be answered until the first few games, is how much Long might also line up with his hand down up front. But for now, Long looks the position was made for him. About the only thing he hasn't done over the first eight practices is pick off a lot of balls.

Oertel has been a pleasant surprise and the coaches are high on him. He is still learning, still making the transition from RB to LB and there's still lots of teaching going on. But the potential factor has been apparent – he can be scary good given his athleticism and natural pass rushing instincts. As he gets more and more reps, he's only going to get better. Like many young, athletic Cougs, things are trending in a positive direction, but it's also still a wait and see proposition. WSU didn't release updated weights prior to spring ball but it looks like Oertel has put on some good muscle since last year.

Of the traditional three linebacker positions, Monroe has been the most physical, dishing out several big hits already this spring. Monroe missed the first scrimmage, presumably due to soreness in his Achilles or maybe because the coaching staff just wanted to be cautious – Monroe wasn't even expected to play this spring. But play he has, and at a high clip. Two of Monroe's other strengths in evidence this spring in addition to his physical play -- his athleticism and change of direction.

Sua is a close second in terms of physical play. Once the pads went on, big hits from Sua have followed. There was a hiccup on Day 2 -- Sua was going about half-speed and was late getting to the outside. Choate erupted and sent him to the sideline. Upon his return, Sua made a pick. He hasn't dogged it one iota since. He's been in close conference with Choate and Breske quite a bit this spring, there is still a lot of teaching going on and talking through the schemes and nuances. But he's looked better and better each practice and with particularly little depth at the WIL, he's the man there in the early going.

Darren Markle has gotten a lot of reps with the first team this spring, particularly early on. And Markle has turned in a number of good, solid plays. What places Monroe above him in our view at this point is consistency. Markle will go out there and make a good play, but then a couple plays later he might struggle in trying to make a different kind of play. And as Monroe made more and more plays with the 2s, he's gotten more and more reps with the 1s. But like others, the more reps Markle gets, the better he's likely to be.

Tana Pritchard has seen some reps with the 1s, but he's mostly been backing up Oertel at the SAM, and he spent most of Day 6 and Saturday's scrimmage with the 2s. Pritchard had a good showing in Saturday's scrimmage, he was flying around well and likes to be make the big hit. Pritchard is young and learning as is Cyrus Coen, who has been spending most of his time with the 2s backing up Sua at the WIL. Both have shown flashes at times, and both have good speed at their respective spots, but they haven't yet emerged as much as have Oertel and Sua. It will be intriguing to track their development, as well as Markle's, over the final seven practices.

Over the BUCK, the Cougs have some budding talent behind Long.

Jordan Pu'u-Robinson has looked good – he's very quick, he's leaner and more muscular than last year and his quickness and explosiveness has been noteworthy. He came out strong at Saturday's scrimmage, though he pretty much lined up at DE on the afternoon. Regardless, he was flying around the field and making plays. But Logan Mayes has been right there with him much of the spring. Mayes has shown quickness, agility, plus the ability to bull rush and flat out cover to the boundary. He and Pu'u-Robinson have looked almost like the same player at times in the spring's early going.

Ian Knight has spent most of his spring running with the 2s and hasn't stood out as much as the other two – which is somewhat surprising given how much he ran with the 1s at defensive end last spring. It will be worth watching this season to see if some BUCKs play with their hand down more than others, how much Long plays at the BUCK or moves around -- and just what the rotation might be. It's still spring, with a little less than half of that session to go plus all of fall camp to come, and there's still plenty of experimentation going on.

Other walk-ons at the linebacker spot include John Taylor Altomare, Phillip Brandt, Anthony DeMatteo and Curtis Selz, who have seen the bulk of their work on the scout team and in the early practice 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills (not live).

CF.C Correspondent Braulio Perez contributed to this report.

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