For Coug DL, a return to early 2013 needed

IN LOOKING AHEAD to the 2014 Cougar defense, it's worth noting that one of the best things about college football is that a unit's development is not measured in straight line. For fans, it's also one of the worst things.

Fans want to see steady improvement over the course of the year. Alas, it usually doesn't work that way. And it's become rarer still with the advent of the high-powered, faster-paced offenses. One week a defense looks great, the next week has fans in the throes of despair.

If you go back and look at the work the Cougar defense did in the first two games of the season on the road against Auburn and USC – and with the focus primarily on the defensive line – well, the Cougar D looks like a completely different unit at the end of the year than they did the first two weeks.

But those first two games of the Cougs' 2013 season do lend optimism in looking ahead to 2014 – WSU was capable of good defense, they showed that.

The Cougs need more speed in 2014 and they need to have players step up at some spots in particular, but from my chair they're closer than they've been in years to fielding a season-long, salty defense out on the Palouse.

Many will argue Auburn wasn't as good as they were later in the season and that neither was USC, and that's a pretty damned safe argument. But what is not true is that the offensive lines for either Auburn or USC went from god-awful against Washington State... to suddenly playing great afterwards.

Washington State earned it up front defensively against both of those teams. The visual proof is right there on the tape.

It's also worth noting that the argument has changed – now it's that WSU would have struggled greatly had they played those two teams later. Before the season and immediately after Week 2, the narrative was completely different -- that WSU had been dealt the worst of all hands by having to open the season against two strong teams, with both those opening games on the road.

IF YOU WANT to pick only one reason for WSU's decline on defense over the course of the 2013 season, middle linebacker is a good place to start when taken in context with the defensive line.

The defensive line against Auburn and USC got good pressure with four against the pass. They did a poor job against the run at Auburn (45 carries), but came back to do hold USC to 3.3 yards on 42 rushes. And in the middle of all of it, MIK Darryl Monroe was both fast and a sure-tackler.

WSU doesn't release injury information but it was clear in watching the late season games that Monroe wasn't 100 percent healthy. He played decently at times, flashed that speed less and kind of disappeared at other times. Back at the start of the season, though, with the Cougar front bringing pressure and occupying blockers, Monroe was the beneficiary and he pounced on just about every chance he got.

True, there were still too many snaps where the Cougar d-line didn't stay low enough against Auburn and USC. But those plays were the exception, whereas later they became the norm.

During those first two games, Toni Pole was employing his swim move with far more effectiveness, where he used the opponent's forward motion against him and disrupted the play. Xavier Cooper was alternatively picking the inside and outside shoulder of his man with greater frequency and quickness. Ioane Gauta was more often allowing those around him to make the tackle within three yards or fewer. Destiny Vaeao didn't have as many impact plays as I thought he would but he had enough flashes that I think he might still burst onto the scene as a junior in 2014.

And Kache Palacio emerged more and more this season at the BUCK. Does he become more of a mainstay in 2014?

REPLACING GAUTA IS going to be the Job 1 on the defensive line for 2014. Whether Pole moves inside to the nose or the Cougs reload from the depth, it's critical Washington State gets solid production from that spot in 2014.

Hell, it's critical to the Cougs' hopes on defense as a whole that the defensive line takes the next step forward. If you're elite on the d-line, that suddenly makes all the guys behind them better.

Robert Barber would seem to be in line for a long look this spring. He'll be two years removed from a knee injury when 2014 rolls around, and oftentimes it is that second year back is when the last bits of explosion and quickness return.

Lyman Faoliu and Darryl Paulo got in some valuable reps this season – 2014 will see if they're ready to make big or small steps forward. Gerald Sterling and Daniel Ekuale spent this season redshirting – are they ready to emerge as impact or ancillary players?

Signing Day is more than a month away but there are some d-linemen verbal commits who could contribute early. You never know until they a) sign and b) get into camp and go against Pac-12 level competition but at the top of that list to contribute early, from this chair, is Ngalu Tapa (6-3, 275).

Mike Breske's ideal nose tackle is 6-3, 300-plus pounds but trumping that consideration is the guy who shows he's the best player for the job out on the field. And you can get the job done with a shorter, lighter guy. Eight of the 11 d-tackles projected to go in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft are 6-2 or shorter. And that's because it doesn't matter how big or strong you are on the inside of the d-line if... your pad level isn't low enough.

Regardless of the package, the Cougs' nose tackle, along with his surrounding DEs and BUCK, have to take the next step in 2014, and throughout 2014. They're capable of doing it.

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