WSU FALL CAMP: What we've learned on defense

PULLMAN – In the second of a three-part series, Cougfan.com focuses in on the crimson stop corps, digging into the first 10 days of Washington State's fall camp to lend context and take a closer look at some of what we've learned. Position battles, opinion, analysis, observations and more, with the Cougar D under the microscope…

The defensive line
Until recently in fall camp, Xavier Cooper was a mainstay up front in the Cougars 3-4, he was running with the 1s exclusively. And then he got hurt. He's been in a walking boot recently, the day before he was riding a bike. When he returns is known only to Mike Leach and staff.

Toni Pole has also been sidelined recently. Pole and Cooper are two-thirds of the expected starters in the three-man front, and Cougar fans must hope their absence is mostly precautionary and to help get them 100 percent headed into the season. Because the Cougs can ill afford to lose front line players at a position they were thin at already.

It's clear even 10 days in that Ioane Gauta will be key for the Cougars this season on defense -- even if everyone's healthy. Gauta was second in line at the nose behind Pole despite this being his first WSU camp and has moved into that NT role when Pole has been out.

Walk on Matthew Bock has seen a lot of time at the LT spot with the 1s through the first 10 days. Bock has had some bright spots and he's been serviceable at times. But it's also a rare walk on who excels as a starter on the d-line in the Pac-12, and he's had challenges against the run and gaining penetration. And a walk on getting so much time with the 1s thus far in fall camp also illustrates in stark terms the depth situation up front.

The other tackle-end spot has often been manned in recent days by Steven Hoffart, who previously was running mostly with the 2s. Hoffart did look pretty good in Saturday's scrimmage. It remains to be seen if that was a corner-turning confidence booster, or just a good day.

An X factor here is Adam Coerper. At his best, Coerper can make an impact in the trenches but he had been dinged up until recently. Now that he's back it would be a boon for the Cougs if he were to stay healthy and then make the most of his chances.

Also in play here are a pair of true freshmen. Destiny Vaeao and Robert Barber are both primarily running with the 2s and both could be factors in 2012. Vaeao has been limited at times but the apparent injury appears nothing serious.

Note: Despite some of the injuries up front, Lenard Williams has been running strictly with the 2s.

The Linebackers
At BUCK, Travis Long has been playing as both a stand-up and back from the line defender, and with his hand down on the line (like a more traditional d-end).

For those wondering, it's hard to draw firm conclusions on how much Logan Mayes could potentially rotate in at the BUCK with Long but from this chair, Long is the clear starter, with Mayes running mostly with the 2s. Mike Breske, the Cougs' defensive coordinator, has continued to say it will be his little secret about how he might get them onto the field at the same time.

Darryl Monroe and Eric Oertel look pretty well set at the MIK and SAM, respectively. But the WIL is seeing an ongoing, ramped-up position battle.

Indeed, Chester Sua is locked up with newcomer Justin Sagote and things might be getting interesting. Sua and Sagote were about 50-50 with the 1s in Saturday's scrimmage. And Sagote in recent days has been getting more and more time with the starters.

Sua is more than capable of doing good things, but there have also been lapses over the first part of fall camp that have drawn the ire of LBs coach Jeff Choate. And Sagote is thus far making the most of his opportunities. Stay tuned.

Some other quick notes on the linebackers:
Although primarily running with the 2s, some situational packages have seen Cyrus Coen come in and run with the 1s.

Before he got dinged up recently, Darren Markle was running primarily with the 2s.

Jared Byers is also running with the 2s, at multiple linebacker positions.

Tana Pritchard's fall camp got off to a slow start due to injury, he's since healed up and has been running some with the 2s.

The Defensive Backfield
Breske told the Moscow-Pullman Daily News on Friday that Deone Bucannon had the strong safety position wrapped up, but the other three starting spots in the secondary pretty much remained up in the air (although Breske also implied in the piece that "maybe" Damante Horton has locked down one of the corner spots.)

We'll go ahead and remove the "maybe" from that, it looks all but official from this chair given what we've seen so far that Horton will be one of the starting corners. So with that said, the other starting corner and safety jobs?

At the other CB, Daniel Simmons has been running the most with the 1s, with Nolan Washington seeing increased time of late after sitting out some sessions with injury. Tracy Clark looks to be next – and he has been Mr. All or Nothing. When he's hot, he can have a great day. When not, the results can be poor.

At the free safety spot opposite Bucannon, Tyree Toomer and Anthony Carpenter (maybe*) look to be the primary battlers.

Before the scrimmage, it looked like it might be Toomer's job to lose but Carpenter has been making a push -- and continued to do so on Saturday.

Toomer has been steady, but hasn't stood out enough that it's become a clear-cut, starting situation for the senior.

Another guy who is getting a little time with the 1s is true freshman Taylor Taliulu. He's mostly running with the 2s and he's probably not going to start this season unless disaster strikes – but he could earn his way into playing time potentially in 2012.

*So what about Casey Locker, the guy who was listed as an OR along with Toomer on the post-spring depth chart?

This is intriguing. Locker has been all over the place, as a nickel back, subbing in with the 1s and playing with the 2s and more. It's unclear at this stage but Locker might be that utility spark-plug type in the defensive backfield, a situational specialist as it were, and a guy who still sees a lot of reps.

Note: Feddie Davey, who has been cited by Leach as one of the Cougs' potential up-and-coming young DBs, has been primarily running with the 2s.

And what of other young defensive backs like Alex Jackson, Ray Ford and Rahmel Dockery? Stay tuned for the conclusion of this three-part series -- What We've Learned: The Future (including 2012). If you missed Part I on the offense, click here.

SPECIAL TEAMS NOTES:
Field position is one of the biggest aspects of the game and punter Mike Bowlin has a tremendous leg. He's cemented himself at the position. Junior kicker Andrew Furney developed into a more-then-reliable option for field goals last year -- he logged the highest-ever FG made percentage for a WSU kicker in 2011. And he drilled a 57-yarder earlier in this fall camp. But he also missed a 37- and 47-yarder in the scrimmage on Saturday. When he does have trouble, they seem to be more with short attempts than long ones. More data on the coverage units and return game should be forthcoming in fall camp's second half.

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