2013 Cougar Football Outlook: Defense & ST

WASHINGTON STATE'S DEFENSE in 2012 was better than a lot of people had thought headed into the season -- the front seven in particular. With nine of the starters back next season, and growing depth behind them, things are trending in a positive direction for the second campaign under defensive coordinator Mike Breske.

Notable losses: LB Travis Long, 6-4, 245; CB Daniel Simmons, 5-10, 184; S Tyree Toomer, 5-11, 200.

Top returnees: DL Matthew Bock, 6-2, 252, R-SR.; S Deone Bucannon, 6-1, 192, SR.; CB Anthony Carpenter, 6-0, 190, R-SR.; LB Cyrus Coen, 6-0, 215, JR.; DE Xavier Cooper, 6-4, 298, R-SO.; NT Ioane Gauta, 6-3, 305, SR.; CB Damante Horton, 5-10, 175, SR.; S Casey Locker, 5-11, 192, R-SR.; LB Logan Mayes, 6-3, 241, JR.; LB Darryl Monroe, 6-1, 228, R-SO.; LB Eric Oertel, 6-1, 210, SR.; NT Toni Pole, 6-1, 277, R-JR.; LB Justin Sagote, 6-0, 220, SR.; LB Chester Sua, 6-1, 224, JR.; CB Nolan Washington, 5-11, 182, R-SR.

Up-and-comers: LB Jeremiah Allison, 6-2, 210, SO.; DL Robert Barber, 6-3, 291, R-FR.; S Feddie Davey, 5-10, 190, SO.; LB Kache Palacio, 6-2, 212, SO.; S Taylor Taliulu, 5-11, 184, SO.; DE Destiny Vaeao, 6-4, 270, SO.

Look for: Improvement on an already decent statistic. Signing Gauta, who Breske called his "biscuit," and the addition of Cooper helped WSU to an improving 65th among Football Bowl Subdivision programs in allowing 163.25 rushing yards per game. But here's the stat that stands out: The Cougs' 4.0 yards per carry allowed by WSU in 2012 was better than most other Pac-12 schools (including Oregon State [4.0] which ranked 31st among BCS programs in rushing yards allowed per game.)

Despite that figure, the defense and front seven should improve further against the run as Leach had to scramble in his first year to find personnel that best fit Breske's 3-4 scheme.

While some holdovers, such as Cooper (8.5 tackles-for-loss), and Pole transitioned well to the new scheme, others did not. Both Ian Knight and Lenard Williams left the program. That in part resulted in Bock, a walk-on, starting at one spot on the edge while Steven Hoffart got four starts on the other side and loads of playing time (and who can forget his key strip of Keith Price in the Apple Cup.)

Leach is looking at bringing in some junior college help up front this recruiting class so the outlook here could be incomplete until signing day. But on the roster there are some key questions waiting to be answered -- among them is if Pole can grab one of the starting positions opposing Gauta at the nose or if he's best used in rotation in the middle. He started two games on the edge in WSU's 3-4 this past season and was lined up there for his fateful Apple Cup interception and return.

A pair of signings last year from American Samoa – Barber and Vaeao – could do the same if they remain healthy. Barber suffered a season-ending knee injury during fall camp. The question on Vaeao is if he needs more seasoning or if he's ready to emerge now.

The linebacking corps was a huge question mark entering the season. But a youthful unit, led by Monroe, proved to be more than adequate. After suffering a torn Achilles tendon during the first game in 2011, Monroe returned to post 80 tackles – 8 ½ for loss – and three sacks. Coen, a former walk-on from Hawaii, also was a pleasant surprise as he emerged as a starter and sure-tackler, with 12 tackles-for-loss among his 60 takedowns.

Sagote made a quick transition from junior-college football to beat out Sua for the starting position at outside linebacker. All three starters here are expected back, but could also be challenged by emerging young players, such as Allison and Palacio.

The biggest challenge in the front seven will be finding a replacement for Long, who coaches accurately predicted would excel in the new system. Long transitioned from defensive end to BUCK linebacker -- essentially a hybrid between end and linebacker in Breske's system. Arguably the best player on the team, Long finished with a team-high 9 ½ sacks and 13 tackles-for-loss. His production helped WSU finished tied for 11th among FBS schools with 35 sacks.

With Long sidelined with a knee injury during the Apple Cup, Mayes got the start and had five tackles and applied the pressure on UW quarterback Keith Price that resulted in Pole's interception during overtime. Mayes is rising, but there could also be taut competition at the position in spring ball depending on the signing class.

Shoring up: By almost any metric, the Cougars struggled to contain the passing game, ranking 96th among FBS schools in pass efficiency defense. And this is what needs to improve most for the Cougars on defense.

Carpenter and Simmons eventually took over at cornerback after Horton and Washington struggled early in the season. After intercepting four passes in 2011, Horton finished with just one this season. Horton and Washington started in WSU's debacle against Colorado, where the Cougars squandered a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to lose 35-34 against the hapless Buffaloes.

Carpenter stood out late in the season, and figures to retain his starting position. Horton or Washington could enter spring practices as a starter, but they could be challenged by redshirt freshmen Rahmel Dockery and Alex Jackson, both of whom were praised by WSU coaches this season for their work on the scout team.

Taliulu initially unseated Toomer, who struggled in pass coverage, before seceding his starting position to Locker. Davey, who was a special-teams fixture, was expected along with Taliulu to challenge here this spring but he tore his ACL in November and assumedly won't be ready until fall camp or later. That may result in Taliulu and David Bucannon battling things out with Locker in spring ball.

One solidified position is strong safety, where Deone Bucannon might be the defense's top returner. He entered the Apple Cup with a team-high 95 tackles and four interceptions. Depending how things go at free safety, Deone could be backed up here by younger brother David, a redshirt freshman.

Keys to the season: WSU needs to continue making strides in stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. And Mayes emerging as a reasonable facsimile of Long would go a long way toward solving the latter. But the biggest area of development needs to occur in the secondary.

Too many times this season WSU allowed long drives to continue via the pass. To be fair, sometimes it was in part due to a pass rush that was suddenly absent. But more often it was due to receivers running free.

Only the elder Bucannon has emerged as an above-average defensive back to this point. Having Dockery, Jackson or another young corner develop into a true 2013 playmaker would go a long way towards the Cougar D taking the next step.

Notable losses: None.

Top returnees: PR Brett Bartolone, 5-10, 179, SO.; P Mike Bowlin, 6-4, 204, SR.; PR Leon Brooks, 5-7, 166, R-SR.; KR Teondray Caldwell, 5-8, 189, SO.; LS Alex Den Bleyker, 5-10, 224, SO.; K Andrew Furney, 5-10, 218, SR.; KR Marcus Mason, 5-9, 190, JR.

Up-and-comers: KR Rahmel Dockery, 5-10, 169, R-FR.; KR Theron West, 5-7, 171, R-JR.

Look for: Outside of the nightmarish performance against UCLA, special teams mostly were solid for WSU. Caldwell, who averaged 25.3 yards per return entering the Apple Cup, easily was the team's top kickoff returner. Expect competition between several players to line up next to him. West, who redshirted last season after averaging 26.9 yards per kickoff return in 2011 at Los Angeles Harbor College, might be ready to challenge.

Both primary punt returners – Bartolone and Brooks – return. Brooks averaged 10.6 yards per return entering the Apple Cup. The kickoff and punt coverage units were average or better in comparison with other FBS programs. That should only improve as Eric Russell is regarded as one of the country's top special team's coaches.

Bowlin routinely produced touchbacks on kickoffs, but struggled with consistency as a punter. He did average 41.95 yards per punt, good for No. 41 in the nation. But the hang time and booming boots he showed in practice didn't show up as often in games. He was even replaced against Stanford, when none of his first three punts traveled further than 33 yards.

Sophomore Wes Concepcion, a walk-on from Kentridge, could challenge for the job again if Bowlin does not show improvement.

Furney is the Cougars' best kicker since Drew Dunning. He is not as accurate nor get as much height as did Dunning, but he possesses a much stronger leg, nailing a 60-yarder early in the season. He also has the perfect disposition for a kicker -- confident and relaxed, especially when facing win or go home opportunities.

Furney drilled a 45-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter to give the Cougs a chance in the Apple Cup. He was then successful from 27 yards in overtime to lead WSU to a 31-28 win. He'll be on preseason awards list in 2013 and if he gets a little more height on some of his kicks, he might well be in position to win them.

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