DEFENSIVE LINE: WSU Fall Camp Preview

THERE'S SO MUCH to talk about on the three-man Cougar defensive line, including all that has happened in recent days, we could almost write a book in previewing the 2012 vintage headed into fall camp. And we almost did. Here's more numbers, notes, analysis and opinion than you can shake a stick at.

The d-line depth chart released just a few days ago went off the rails when Anthony Laurenzi was dismissed from the team. The fifth year senior was not only a starter at LT but also the No. 2 nose. Take Laurenzi out of the equation and you've suddenly gone from 6 to 4 on the latest official two-deeps.

Personnel/Stats
Right Tackle
Xavier Cooper: Second year Freshman. Redshirted last season. Beefed up to 298 pounds this offseason.

*Justin Clayton: Fourth year Junior. Has played in 21 games with 3 career starts. Has career numbers of 23 tackles (12 solo) with 3 TFL and 1.5 sacks.

Nose Tackle
Kalafitoni Pole: Third year sophomore. Played in 10 games his freshman season in 2011, with 11 tackles (7 solo) and 0.5 TFL and 0.5 sacks.

*Adam Coerper: Fifth year Senior. Has played in 8 games at WSU, with 4 starts. Figures would be had he not incurred injuries. Has 16 career tackles (12 solo) with 2 TFL and 0.5 sacks.

*Left tackle
Lenard Williams: Fourth year Senior. Played in 10 games in his first season in a WSU uniform, with 6 starts. Posted 15 tackles (8 solo) with 1 TFL and 1 sack.
OR
Steven Hoffart: Fifth year Senior. Has played in 14 games in two seasons at WSU, with 4 tackles (2 solo) with 1.5 TFL and 1 sack.
*CF.C first day of fall camp projections

Depth
Matthew Bock: Fourth year Junior. 6-2, 252
Austin Brown: First year Freshman. 6-2, 255
David Davis: Second year Freshman. 6-2, 270
Darryl Paulo: Second Year Freshman. 6-2, 267

Newcomers:
Robert Barber: 6-3, 291
Ioane Gauta: 6-3, 305
Destiny Vaeao: 6-4, 270

Snapshot:
The season up front will depend in large part on Pole and how good Gauta is right of the gate. Pole is low to the ground and he's leaned up to 277 pounds. Before you groan and wax poetically about him now being too light, one of the more dominating nose tackles in recent years in the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) was Mike Patterson at USC. He was 6-0, 288 pounds his senior year, and he slapped around 330-pound o-linemen as a matter of course – because he understood technique, leverage and he had burst.

Those attributes are present in Pole or within his grasp. He's also become more of a leader this offseason. The question is if Pole's technique has risen enough under the to-this-point brief tutelage of d-line coach Joe Salave'a. If so, and if he consistently uses leverage to his advantage, WSU could be in good shape in the middle.

Gauta, meanwhile, has garnered unusual amounts of praise from DC Mike Breske – unusual in that Gauta has yet to partake in his first official practice at Washington State. But if he's as good as advertised and can stay healthy, many of the concerns up front could be alleviated.

Cooper was good enough to play and perhaps start last year. With his academics now in better shape, he'll get the chance to shine. But it's still going to be his first year in going against Pac-12 caliber competition and expecting too much of him isn't realistic. Williams and Hoffart are wild cards. How much have they improved and put themselves into position to excel this fall camp?

Speaking of wild cards, keep an eye on Coerper. Every time he's seemed to really be coming on at Washington State, he's gotten dinged up. Is this finally the year he breaks through and maintains a consistently high level of play? Can he become an impact player and all season long?

Quick Hitters:
How you look at the three-man front headed into fall camp probably depends on if you're a glass half-full or half-empty type.

If you're an optimist, you look at the players behind the (assumed) starters and say, wait a minute, there's some experience and talent back there in Coerper, Clayton, Hoffart and Bock. And Paulo is a high ceiling guy who, now that he's had a year to get used to playing with his hand down all the time in college after a prep career heavy on linebacker, the light bulb is going to go on and he'll surprise some people. Add in a what if – what if Davis comes on strong in his second year, and suddenly things are looking up. Plus Barber has a huge ceiling. And oh by the way, Vaeao over the course of his career, he might end up being the best of them all.

If you're more of a pessimist, you point out that Cooper will be making his first start, Pole is unproven and Williams was quiet last year despite six starts. You frown at the fact Gauta is being counted upon to excel and that first year transfers out of junior college, no matter how celebrated, rarely excel their first year in a major conference. You are concerned that Coerper, Clayton and Hoffart have all shown flashes, but never consistency. You're not convinced that Paulo, Davis or Bock will emerge. And while you acknowledge his vast potential, you absolutely hate the prospect of burning the redshirt of Vaeao, let alone Barber, who is talented but raw.

The battles:
Cooper and Pole are heavy favorites to start at two of the three d-line positions, but they're not absolute locks. If the unexpected happens, and one or more Cougar players burst onto the scene, there could be some shuffling or at the least, high pitched competition.

All things being equal, however, who grabs the third spot -- Williams or Hoffart? Well, first off, it's almost certainly going to be a three man race, and neither Williams or Hoffart is the likely frontrunner.

Junior college players don't want to wait to play, and Gauta is sure going to get his chance with the Cougs in 2012. Even without the loss of Laurenzi, Gauta was going to get every opportunity to earn one of the three starting spots.

Vaeao might make it impossible for the Cougar coaches to redshirt him, and for Cougar fans to disagree with it. He might still be a little on the raw side but his athleticism and measurables are simply off the charts. He might just be too good in 2012 to sit.

Final thoughts and intangibles:
It's always important to stay healthy but on the d-line this season, it's critical. WSU's defense is going to be on the field a lot with the Air Raid offense doing its thing and they'll need to be able to rotate to keep players as fresh as possible.

It might already be a lonely bench but if injuries pile up, it could be all hands on deck.

A lot will have to break right for the d-line this year – players expected to step up into starting roles will have to do so and once they're there, win more Pac-12 battles than they lose. Guys counted upon to surprise and take a step forward, they will have to do that. And collectively they'll have to make their own share of breaks when opportunity presents itself, with a drive killing fumble here, a critical third down stop there.

There are a lot of reasons for optimism. But the reasons for pessimism are present and accounted for, too.

WSU hasn't caught their share of breaks in recent years. And some good karma on the d-line in 2012 would sure be a welcome sight for Cougar fans. That, and a 305-pound bulldozer in cleats named Gauta having a breakout season in the Pac-12.

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