Countdown to Spring: Cougars DL Preview

PULLMAN – The Cougs return nearly everyone up front on defense this spring. And the 2012 season was a step in the right direction for Washington State on D. The defensive line, chock full of new faces, did an admirable job of stopping the run. With more fresh bodies and another year of experience, are the Cougs poised to make leaps and bounds in the trenches when spring drills kick off this week?

While the Cougs did have their struggles in 2012, most would argue those shortcomings took place on the offensive side of the ball rather than on the defense. Washington State, led by a host of new names in the trenches, ranked 59th in rush defense in 2012, a standing not seen in some time on the Palouse.

The Cougs also ranked 14th in the country in sacks, and this can be heavily attributed to blitz packages involving a linebacker group with speed to boot.

There were lapses but on balance, Washington State's defense in 2012 was respectable.

And with the only substantial subtraction being senior Travis Long, albeit a tremendous loss, the Cougs appear locked and loaded to take yet another step forward in developing a vaunted defense, starting this Thursday with the first practice of the spring.

It all begins up front.

WORKING OUT OF the 3-4 scheme, pound for pound, the Cougs have some of the bigger starting defensive linemen in the conference.

Up front, it begins with senior Ioane Gauta (6-4, 310) and redshirt sophomore Xavier Cooper (6-4, 278). Both appear to be cornerstones in 2013, as each made immediate impacts upon their arrival on defense.

Each recorded 8.5 tackles for a loss in 2012, as well as three sacks a piece -- pretty flashy numbers for two guys considered nose tackle types.

Behind Gauta and Cooper, a crowd of qualified candidates should be able to step in and contribute to what has seemingly become a relatively deep defensive line.

Senior Matthew Bock, redshirt junior Toni Pole, and sophomore Destiny Vaeao will all battle it out for playing time this Spring.

My opinion? Pole needs to be in on each and every passing down.

He has good hands.

*Cough cough* 31-28 Apple Cup *Cough cough*

Vaeao got in some good turns last season as a true freshman, and could be poised for a breakout year. His athleticism is off the charts.

LEST WE FORGET the other of Leach's prized recruits from American Samoa in the 2012 cycle -- redshirt freshman Robert Barber.

The Pago Pago product was hit by injuries in 2012, missing time for a multitude of reasons before blowing out his knee just three weeks into fall camp. Barber (6-3, 290) appears primed for a return in 2013, and should seemingly come in and battle for playing time at the nose tackle position.

Beyond those six, several young guns and seasoned veterans, as well as one new fresh face, will come into spring practices looking to make an impression.

Seniors Justin Clayton and Zach Brevick, though sparsely utilized in 2012, should give the Cougs' defensive line the veteran presence and depth needed in Joe Salave'a's rotation-based defensive front.

Junior Lyman Faoliu, a junior college transfer out of Vallejo, Calif. looks to have the size and speed coaches dream about coming off the edge. His value might not be realized most as a pass rusher -- Faoliu's presence may instead be felt in the run game and in opening holes for a stout linebacking corps to jump through.

Behind them, a few promising underclassmen should provide the Cougs the depth needed to feel comfortable in the trenches for years to come.

Redshirt sophomores Darryl Paulo (6-3, 250) and David Davis (6-2, 278) have yet to stake claim to any playing time on the Palouse, though their credentials speak nicely toward that happening in 2013. Paulo, a once heavily-sought prospect out of Grant HS (Sacramento, Calif.), racked up 150 tackles his senior year from the middle linebacker position. Unfortunately, injuries have held him back since arriving to Pullman. Now a defensive end, Paulo's may be ready to step up to the plate and become the impact player fans and coaches once envisioned.

Davis is a big-bodied nose tackle whom has yet to catch on. At times, Davis served as a good run-stuffer up front. Other times, he appeared to have stamina issues and look a little lost on on defense. Listed at 278, Davis looks to have put on more weight since arriving on campus, and could be close to topping the 300-pound mark at this point. If Davis is in playing shape this spring, it could go a long ways toward getting him some on-field run with the 1's and 2's this fall.

As 2012 showed us, depth can never be understated. Although the Cougs have what would appear to be eleven able-bodies to work with in the trenches, a few walk-ons will surely come in this spring in the attempts of snatching playing time away from the presumptive favorites.

Redshirt sophomore Eddie Releford and redshirt freshman Austin Brown, both walk-ons, will likely come in with a chip on their shoulders in 2013.

Though the Cougs looked comfortably set this spring for another strong year in the front seven, fans and coaches can expect another injection of young talent this fall.

Freshman Paulo Lepua (6-3, 265) may be too talented to keep off the field. As a senior at Narbonne High (Harbor City, Calif.), Lepua racked up an unprecedented 26 sacks en route to being named all-state California. This came just one year after compiling an already impressive 14 sacks as a prep junior. Lepua has speed and technique to kill, and is already considered a bona fide pass-rusher -- something the Cougs may lack coming off the edge headed into the spring.

Beyond Lepua, the Cougs can expect fellow frosh prospects Daniel Ekuale, Gerald Sterling and Emmitt Su'a-Kalio to come in and compete right out of the gates.

Sterling has received rave-reviews for his brute strength and tenacity, while Ekuale and Su'a-Kalio's potentials on the defensive line have yet to be tapped. Both display the strength and size to play on the line, with Ekuale possibly on the inside at 6-4, 290 with Su'a-Kalio out on the edge at 6-4, 250.

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