SPOTLIGHT: Coug D has chip on its shoulder

PULLMAN – Texas Tech led the nation in passing six of the last eight years Mike Leach coached the Red Raiders, so it comes as no surprise that most of the focus has been on the offense as Leach prepares for his first season at the helm of Washington State. WSU defensive players say they understand why there's so much fuss about the offense, but they plan to earn a few headlines themselves.

"We know a lot of the fans and a lot of the media want to put a lot of the spotlight on the offense, but that's just feeding us," linebacker Eric Oertel said. "We're used to it. We're starting to love it.

"We're starting to feel we've got a chip on our shoulders. I think that's what's really going to help us go out and win games, just playing with that chip on our shoulders. Nobody's going to give us a chance because of our past history."

Despite having No. 1 quarterback Jeff Tuel sidelined with injuries most of last season, the Cougars ranked ninth in the nation in passing. Still, WSU finished 4-8 in large part because the defense ranked in the bottom third nationally in points allowed, passing yards allowed and total yards allowed.

"We've got to show that we can play, too," end-tackle Steven Hoffart said. "We're going to win some games for this team, too."

"Defense is going to win games," BUCK linebacker Travis Long agreed. "You can't be letting up 50 points and trying to catch up and score 50 points, so defense is still very crucial."

Long, a three-year starter at defensive end, said the switch from a base 4-3 defense to a 3-4 (with some 4-3 still utilized) "really hasn't been too bad" for himself or the defense as a whole.

"A lot of this stuff is the same," he said. "Concepts are kind of the same, easy to teach."

"I think a lot of the changes were a good fit for our defense," said Logan Mayes, another BUCK linebacker. "Personnel-wise, for some of these teams up in the Northwest, it's easier to recruit the personnel for a 3-4 defense than a 4-3 defense, because you can't really recruit those kind of 6-(foot-)4, 6-5, 300-pound defensive tackles that are going to be able to play 3 technique.

"We do have one of those guys – Xavier Cooper. He's extremely talented. But generally, it's harder to recruit those guys. On the other hand, you play four linebackers, it's easy to get four hard-nosed guys. Like the kind of guys that Boise State gets every year: Hard-nosed, hard-working, lunch-pail kind of guys. You can get four of those guys every year and then just a big nose tackle from California and you're set."

Kalafitoni Pole, a 6-1, 277-pound nose tackle from Union City, Calif., is smaller than the prototypical nose tackle Mayes described. Pole seems to have the "hard-nosed" part down pat, however, thanks partly to new defensive line coach Joe Salave'a, who played nine years in the NFL as a defensive lineman.

"He's a really good coach," Pole said. "He knows how to coach us as a whole and on a personal basis, because he's been there before. He uses that as a ‘plus' for him coaching-wise.

"He emphasizes the same thing: ‘You're going to line up, and it's all about match-ups. When you put your hand down on the ground, are you going to kick their ass or is he going to kick your ass?'"

SALAVE'A, A teddy bear off the field, can be a raging bear during practice.

"He gets pretty intense," Cooper understated.

"It's fun to see that big guy during team (sessions); he gets excited," Pole said. "He flails his arms around. He sees a running back, he starts chasing him down the field, trying to get us to run to the ball."

"Coach Joe, he's amazing," Cooper said. "He's a good dude. You've got to listen to a guy like that because he has so much experience in the NFL."

LEACH DID NOT make things easier for the defense by kicking three of the 2011 starters off the team after run-ins with the law, (linebackers C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi and nose tackle Anthony Laurenzi.)

"It's tough," Mayes said. "Those were good players. They're all starters and all very talented. All probably had futures in the NFL, and they still might. At the same time, those are the golden rules (that were broken), and they knew they were the broken rules when they broke them."

"Next guy in," Long injected.

FROM TUEL'S vantage point under center, several of those "next guys" look extremely talented.

"We've got a bunch of athletes out there," Tuel said. "We're not a very big (defensive) group, it's obvious, but we're super athletic and fast. We've got a lot of guys flying around that can definitely make some plays. I've got all the confidence in the world in those guys."

MAYES SAID TUEL should be confident in the defense, which Mayes says will be better than last year's edition.

"This defense really has something to prove," Mayes said. "With all the headlines the offense is getting and with this defense being young, I think it's really their time to shine, kind of their time in the sun. I think we also have a high-character, high-cohesive unit, where all of the guys are pointed in the right direction. Everyone is really focused, and they have the same objective."

Their objective? Just win, baby.

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