COUNTDOWN TO 2013: Cougars D-Line Preview

PULLMAN – I'm just going to throw this out there when it comes the 2013 WSU defensive line – The Pacific Posse. You have a Cougar d-line that last season helped Wazzu rank No. 7 and No. 14 nationally in tackles-for-loss and sacks, respectively. In 2013, almost everyone is back and among the pre-fall camp numbers that are most compelling, there's this...

One projection of the two deeps on the line at the start of fall camp could see four of the six spots populated by Cougars of Polynesian descent. Taking it a step further, among those expected to see significant playing time and/or Cougar rookies in the fold this upcoming season, and that ratio becomes 9-of-13.

The Cougs return nearly everyone up front -- Granted, they lose BUCK Travis Long, and he won't be easy to replace.

But the 2012 season was a step in the right direction for Washington State overall on the d-line, and not just a Long showcase. All signs this offseason have pointed to another stingy defensive front for the crimson and gray in 2013.

LED BY SENIOR nose tackle Ioane Gauta (6-3, 286) and third-year sophomore defensive end Xavier Cooper (6-4, 298), the Cougs look to have a two-headed monster up front with an appetite for disruption.

Couple that with a healthy dose of fourth-year junior Toni Pole (6-1, 300) in the rotation and formidable would be a pretty good place to start in describing the Cougs' front end.

But are they healthy?

Both Pole and Gauta went down with knee injuries this spring -- each sporting crutches and leg braces. According to all reports I've received from people close to the program, both are back to 100 percent and ready to go.

For what it's worth, I've also seen both players about campus in recent weeks and they showed no signs of being slowed.

THE COUGS ALSO ranked 59th in run defense this past season.

Normally that wouldn't be much to shout about but considering it was the first year of running the 3-4, that in three of the previous four seasons WSU was near the bottom of the FBS in rushing yards allowed and that the Cougs got it done in sacks and TFL last year, one can argue WSU has made the biggest improvement on D in the conference.

Defensive line coach and player favorite Joe Salave'a should have a field day coaching his squad this year, a unit that responded smartly to his instruction in '12.

For all of these reasons, the defensive line should certainly be a position to watch this season as the team looks to improve on a 2012 defensive campaign that set a foundation.

Pound for pound, working out of the 3-4 scheme, the Cougs have some of the bigger starting defensive linemen in the conference.

Aside from the aforementioned Gauta, Cooper and Pole, there are several candidates to wreak havoc in the trenches.

Senior Matthew Bock (6-2, 266) continued his strong play day in and day out as the right defensive end this spring. A former walk-on and Wulff recruit, Bock continues to make plays on defensive despite his size and lack of "natural" athleticism. Bock is a guy that won't do anything incredible out there, instead he does all the little things very well.

But he will be challenged for his starting job this fall camp. And at the very least, rotating in with the 1's are a host of candidates this season, all of which ooze promise.

At the top of that list from this chair sit sophomore Destiny Vaeao (6-4, 293) and second-year freshman Robert Barber (6-3, 300).

VAEAO SAW A bit of on-field action in 2013 and showed promise, although his stat line was a relatively modest five tackles and one forced fumble. Vaeao fought through injury last year but he has the size and athleticism to be a very good defensive lineman. He should figure into the rotation quite prominently this fall, if he doesn't win a starting job.

Barber's potential remains a mystery after suffering a knee injury in 2012. All signs pointed to the Pago Pago, American Samoa product making an impact on defense last season before he went down. Still unable to go this spring, Barber should get a good amount of run this fall as his knee is expected to be back to full strength.

Also in the mix is expected to be junior Logan Mayes, who is making the transition back to defensive end after a year at the BUCK position.

Mayes has always been a true pass-rusher and has the size and tools to play with his hand down if he turns in a strong fall performance. After sitting out all spring with an injury, it's hard to gauge where Mayes is on the depth chart, and how the coaches view him in the grand scheme of things. That figures to change rapidly come fall camp.

APART FROM THAT group, junior Lyman Faoliu, a junior college transfer out of Vallejo, Calif., looks to have the size and speed WSU coaches want coming off the edge.

Faoliu struggled to make waves this spring, but his presence may instead be most felt in the run game and in opening holes for a stout linebacking corps to jump through. Faoliu was never a big-pass rusher at the junior college level, and one wouldn't expect that to change too drastically in the Pac-12.

Redshirt sophomore Darryl Paulo (6-3, 250) has had difficulty since his arrival in cracking the two-deeps, party due to injury, but he showed this spring he can be a multi-dimensional player in the middle. Despite his smaller size, Paulo performed admirably as a nose tackle spot and could see more time in the trenches this fall.

Then, of course, there are some true freshmen to provide intrigue.

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, and should develop into a bona fide pass-rusher. He may even push Bock for time on the edge this season.

COUGAR NATION CAN also expect fellow freshmen Gerald Sterling, Daniel Ekuale and Emmitt Su'a-Kalio to get long looks right out of the gates.

Sterling could end up being the most ready of the true freshmn – the 6-4, 275-pounder received rave-reviews for his strength and tenacity this past season. There aren't a lot of Alabama prep d-linemen who rack up a season double-double of 15 sacks and 10 forced fumbles.

Meanwhile, Su'a-Kalio's potential on the defensive line has yet to be tapped. Ekuale, in particular, still lacks a true position, but has brute strength. Both may need a year of seasoning, and Ekuale has the build to be a boulder in the middle.

IN ALL, the Cougs have a plethora of talent and size up front to smartly fit Mike Breske's defense, something that bodes well for the future of the program. Salave'a's ability to recruit The Islands is paying dividends for Washington State and in my opinion, that payoff is going to do nothing but increase over the next few years.

While some of the Cougs listed above are decidedly unproven, the mixture of potential and experience should make for an explosive year in the trenches.

No one will ever forget the Palouse Posse… but could 2013 mark the emergence of The Pacific Posse?

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