Cougar D might steal the headlines

THE BIG QUESTIONS in the coming weeks before fall camp for the Cougs will have a lot to do with the offensive line and the quarterback battle, and they should. But in looking at some numbers and trends, it might be the other side of the ball at Washington State that should also be holding the attention of Cougar Nation.

A QB battle is always going to be big news and the debate over Connor Halliday and Austin Apodaca is going to produce a lengthy discourse indeed. But maybe some of that focus should be on nose tackles Ioane Gauta and Toni Pole, and d-end Xavier Cooper.

In addition to Rico Forbes, Elliott Bosch, Joe Dahl and the rest of the Cougar o-line, maybe more light should be shining on Darryl Monroe, Justin Sagote, Tana Pritchard and Deone Bucannon.

If you look at the final Top 25 poll, less than a third of those teams, eight, ranked in the top 25 in rushing offense. Surprisingly, it's even less for passing offense, where only six teams ranked in the top 25 AP poll also ranked in the top 25 in passing offense.

Yet 12 teams in the final AP Top 25 poll also ranked in the top 25 in rushing defense. And passing defense? Again the number was 12 -- nearly half of the last Top 25 poll also finished in the top 25 in passing defense.

Given the voluminous talk about the spread and the rapid evolution of college offenses in recent years, you might have thought the numbers would have been in the opposite direction. But the old bromide that defense still wins championships, it would seem, still has legs.

MAYBE IT WAS just seeing the spring game (the three quarters that were broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks anyway). And granted, the Crimson & Gray game was not representative of the offense's overall play this spring, according to Mike Leach -- but it sure felt like the defense might be quicker to make some noise in Year 2 of the Leach regime than will the offense.

The offense is going to get there. And when it does, it should be a sight to see. There's not much doubt about that in most pundits' minds. But the notion remains that the Cougar defense on Day 14 in Spokane looked poised to quietly steal their fair share of headlines in 2013.

Consider that Washington State was No. 8 in the nation in tackles for loss last season -- a stat if not lost on CougFans, surely has slipped the collective memories.

The Cougs were also No. 11 in the land in sacks in 2012.

Still, consistency was the problem last season. WSU also struggled mightily in pass efficiency defense (No. 93). They were No. 64 in rushing defense. Sixty-fourth would be a disappointment this season based on the spring results but for 2012, consider it was the first year of running a new 3-4...under a new coaching staff...with a ton of young players.

Based on the sacks and tackles-for-loss, as well as a number of other factors, it certainly seems reasonable to project a good number of those players who put up those 2012 numbers are going to be better this season. Experience counts.

THE 3-4 RELIES more heavily on the middle linebacker(s) than does a traditional 4-3. And any defense has to first and foremost stop the run. A 3-4 defense has to (generally) do that with one fewer lineman. Monroe this spring made that proposition a whole lot easier.

If Monroe takes off like many think the redshirt sophomore might this season, the Cougs' run defense is going to improve -- and perhaps by a bunch, in the stat book.

Cougar fans should also be excited about the emergence of Pritchard. In addition to his contributions, the competition at WIL will only make Sagote better. And Bucannon will be greatly needed, not just for his play but also his leadership in a secondary that needs work.

Bucannon and his secondary mates will have an easier time of it if Gauta and Pole can play big-boy football. Both got dinged up this spring and missed the layyer half. Leach and WSU don't comment on injuries but sources close to the program have told CF.C to expect both, as well as Bucannon, to be ready to go for fall camp. Meanwhile, Cooper is looking more and more like he's ready to become an upper echelon Pac-12 defensive end.

THE AIR RAID and the multiple storylines contained within are going to be front and center all offseason and on into fall camp. That's a given.

But the WSU stop corps might end up being the real story in 2013.

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