COUNTDOWN TO 2013: Cougars Safeties Preview

PULLMAN – Senior Deone Bucannon is rated the top Pac-12 free safety for the 2014 draft by nfldraftscout, (and No. 6 overall). His impact on the WSU defense has long been felt, and that kind of production should be expected again this year. But who will line up opposite him in 2013? And should we expect at least one breakout season from a pool of youthful Cougar safeties?

The defensive secondary has been a sore thumb for Washington State in recent years but 2013 should yield better results -- the quality of talent continues to grow with each new recruiting class.

As mentioned in the cornerbacks preview piece, the Cougs ranked 98th out of 120 teams in 2012 in pass defense. At least some of that can be attributed to the fact that the defense was almost always on the field due to an offense constantly kicking the tires. Not all, but some.

But with underwhelming corner play last season, the safeties were relied on far too heavily to be in picture-perfect position on most plays.

Instincts are what makes a great safety -- the ability to make plays and, at times, range freely. That wasn't much of an option in 2013 as Bucannon and Co. had to compensate for lackluster play on the outside.

My take in watching this team last year and all spring is that CougFans can expect greater production from the safety position in 2013. "Buc" might not lead the team in tackles as he's done two of his three seasons at WSU – and yet he could be in line for his best year ever in crimson due to a better surrounding group.

REGARDLESS OF HOW the stats play out, Bucannon should enjoy a strong senior year at the free safety spot -- and multiple candidates at the strong safety position should yield robust competition on the other side.

But it all starts with Bucannon.

An all-conference playmaker, Bucannon (6-1, 198) will almost certainly be drafted next April and play on Sundays. He's a tackling machine, and a ball-hawk to boot.

He's been one of the most consistent players on a spotty defense for three years now, and his play hasn't gone unheralded.

Playing next to Bucannon at the free safety position in 2013 is the real question.

FIFTH-YEAR SENIOR Casey Locker (5-11, 195) and sophomore Taylor Taliulu (5-11, 202) will head into fall camp as the likeliest candidates.

Locker is great in run defense and can drop the hammer.

But he's also had his share of issues in pass coverage (particularly on post routes this spring). And he's had a tag placed on his back by the zebras -- to the point he has to be ultra-careful not to draw personal foul flags.

Taliulu on the other hand earned a starting gig out of fall camp last season as a true freshman. And it looked like a star was in the making.

But after becoming homesick, his play deteriorated and his playing time took a nosedive. Now, a year older and more comfortable in Pullman, Taliulu says he's never felt better and is ready to reclaim his starting position.

BUT EARNING THAT starting job for both Locker and Taliulu won't be easy. Several youngsters showed flashes of growth this spring, and it's not inconceivable one captures the open chair.

Not since 2007 has there been a brothers' tandem in the WSU defensive backfield. Could 2013 reintroduce that notion?

Redshirt freshman David Bucannon (6-0, 187) will come and battle for time this fall. The younger brother of Deone, David's biggest red flag last season was size. If good weight was put on in the offseason, he should get a look this fall.

But the list goes on.

From this vantage point, true freshman Darius Lemora (6-0, 185) already has the build and make-up of a Pac-12 safety despite being 18 years old.

Lemora will be given as good an opportunity as any other player to earn the starting gig this fall -- and he might be ready to take it despite the fact that a few months ago he was in high school. He has the tools to be special.

And keep an eye out for Paris Taylor. At 6-3, 205 pounds, he'll be hard to miss. He's the candidate perhaps most off the radar headed into fall camp.

Taylor has four years to play three seasons at WSU. In seven games as a freshman at LA Pierce College in ‘12, he recorded 25 tackles before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He's expected to be 100 percent for the start of fall camp and Pierce told CF.C the WSU coaches like his range and how he glides to the ball.

OTHER NAMES TO look out for this fall are fourth-year junior walk on Mitchell Peterson (6-0, 200) and true freshman Isaac Dotson (6-3, 210).

Dotson will more than likely need a year in the film room on on the practice field, regardless of whether he ends up at safety or quarterback -- but he does have size. Peterson drew sterling reviews from coaches for his heady play this spring, but my take is he probably lacks the natural athleticism needed to be a top-notch safety at the Pac-12 level. Still, he brings value to the table, and could very well work himself into the two-deeps this fall.

THE SAFETY POSITION offers more candidates this year than last, and stronger candidates at that.

Bucannon is a star, and a budding first-team all-conference selection. With more stable play surrounding the safety position this season, the Cougs should see greater pass defense results in 2013.

Bucannon led Washington State with 106 tackles in 2012, fifth-most in the Pac-12, and was named second team All-Pac-12 on a squad that went 3-9. It was the first 100-tackle season by a Cougar in six years (Eric Frampton, 100, 2006) and the most tackles by a Coug since 1996 – when James Darling racked up 136 stops.

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