2014 COUGAR OUTLOOK: Defense, special teams

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING, it would seem the Washington State defense has nowhere to go but up in 2014 after finishing 10th or 11th in the Pac-12 in the four major categories measuring defensive prowess. Opportunism, though, is not one of them. And in that regard, the 2013 Cougar D did itself proud. The victories over USC and Utah illustrate the point.

So as the Cougars look to 2014, they'll aim to build on their opportunistic ways – but they'll be doing it without some their key 2013 playmakers.

Notable losses:
SS Deone Bucannon, S Casey Locker, CB Damante Horton, CB Nolan Washington, CB Anthony Carpenter, LB Justin Sagote, DL Matthew Bock and NT Ioane Gauta.

Top returnees:
NT Toni Pole, DE Xavier Cooper, DE Darryl Paulo, LB Darryl Monroe, LB Kache Palacio, LB Destiny Vaeao, LB Tana Pritchard, LB Jeremiah Allison, LB Cyrus Coen, S Taylor Taliulu.

Up-and-Comers:
NT Robert Barber, NT Daniel Ekuale, DL Emmitt Su'a-Kalio, CB Charleston White, CB Daquawn Brown, LB Ivan McLennan, LB Lyman Foaliu, LB Peyton Pelluer, S Darius Lemora, S Isaac Dotson, S Paris Taylor. Also, WSU is expected to bring in "grayshirt" CBs Marcellus Pippins and Markell Sanders and BUCK Dylan Hanser next month and they will participate in spring ball.

Look for:
The big question mark for Washington State on defense will be how quickly the young players in the secondary can grow and mature. There's no denying it, the loss of AP All-American Deone Bucannon is huge. The man known as "The Cannon" was the heart and soul for the Cougs over the last two years. There's a reason several NFL draft experts, including CBS, project him as the No. 1 strong safety available and a second-round pick in April's NFL draft.

Bucannon is just the start of the holes the Cougs must fill in the secondary, however. Also gone are cornerback Damante Horton, a two-time all-Pac-12 honorable mention pick and hero of the USC win, and fellow corner Nolan Washington, a part-time starter. CB/S Anthony Carpenter and safety Casey Locker are also graduating. Free safety Taylor Taliulu is the only full-time starter in the secondary who is back in 2014. One youngster who figures to be counted on in big way is sophomore-to-be Daquawn Brown. As a true freshman this season he appeared in 12 games, starting four at boundary cornerback, and collecting 50 tackles and two interceptions. Another 2013 true freshman, safety Isaac Dotson, also figures to be in line for prime time in 2014 after turning in outstanding work on special teams this season and spot duty in the secondary. In addition, there's safety Darius Lemora. He redshirted this year after suffering an undisclosed injury but was widely believed to be the most Pac-12 ready defensive player in the 2013 recruiting class. He returned to practice in the run up to the New Mexico Bowl and figures to be a huge addition to the secondary in 2014. Another 2013 redshirt, cornerback Charleston White, turned heads on the scout team and should be poised for a run at the starting line up in 2014. There are a host of others who will be contending for the two deeps, so the issue isn't necessarily one of depth as much as it is real-game experience.

Up front, the Cougs should be deeper in 2014. Of the six players on the two-deep depth chart at tackle, end and nose tackle, all but Ioane Gauta and backup Matthew Bock will be back. Toni Pole and Xavier Cooper lead the way. Cooper had a team-leading five sacks and also posted 50 tackles in 2013. Darryl Paulo and Robert Barber, who saw PT in 2013, also will be back. Youngsters Daniel Ekuale, Gerald Sterling and Emmitt Su'a-Kalio will be ones to watch.

At the three traditional linebacker spots, the Cougs lose 22-game starter Justin Sagote on the weakside, but return 13-game starter Darryl Monroe (94 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles) in the middle, 10-game starter Cyrus Coen and three-game starter Tana Pritchard on the strongside. At BUCK linebacker, Destiny Vaeao and Kache Palacio, who shared time in 2013, are both back. Another BUCK to watch for is Ivan McLennan, a former JC transfer who redshirted this season but made a mark as the scout team defensive player of the year. Another interesting piece of the puzzle in 2014 will be Chester Sua, a one-time starter on the outside who redshirted this season for undisclosed reasons. Lyman Faoliu and Peyton Pelluer are two key players to also keep an eye on.

Keys to the season:
Plain and simple, the Cougars need to generate more of a pass rush and they will be very young in the secondary and will need some of the inexperienced guys to step up. Veterans on the line and at linebacker will help take some pressure off the DBs, but that carries a team only so far. The safeties and cornerbacks must mature quickly if the Cougar D has any hope of going toe-to-toe in the Pac-12 each week.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Notable losses:
Placekicker Andrew Furney, punter and kickoff specialist Mike Bowlin, punt returner Leon Brooks, gunners Deone Bucannon and Casey Locker.

Top returnees:
Long snapper Alex Den Bleyker, holder Austin Apodaca, return men Rickey Galvin and Teondray Caldwell, gunner Theron West.

Up-and-Comers:
Punter Wes Concepcion.

Look for:
The loss of starting kicker Andrew Furney cannot be overstated. He was reliable, brimming with confidence and had distance. His departure opens the way for class of 2014 verbal commit Tristan Vizcaino of LaVerne, Calif.

As for the punting game, Mike Bowlin won't be back next season and some might call it an addition by subtraction. The senior struggled mightily in 2013, shanking numerous boots and averaging a league worst 39 yards per punt. He ended up being replaced in the Apple Cup and New Mexico Bowl by Wes Concepcion, a junior walk on out of Kent. Conception didn't fair much better for WSU, averaging 36 yards per punt on 12 boots. Expect special teams coach Eric Russell to work overtime with the punting unit in the spring and fall.


XAVIER COOPER GLIMPSED NFL POTENTIAL IN 2013. HE'LL BE A JUNIOR IN '14.


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