2015 COUGAR OUTLOOK: Defense

WASHINGTON STATE’S DEFENSE was anything but predictable in 2014. But when it comes to intrigue, this past season could turn out to be a drop in the bucket in comparison to 2015. Looming for this coming season, a new defensive coordinator on the way along with a potential schematic overhaul, and a new defensive backs coach. 2015 COUGAR OUTLOOK: Defense

The Cougs ranked 98th among 125 Football Bowl Subdivision programs in total defense in 2014, allowing an average of 442.3 yards per game. But perhaps the most telling statistic in Mike Leach’s decision to replace DC Mike Breske is that points allowed per game climbed to 38.6 in 2014, up from 32.5 the previous year and 33.7 in 2012.

Regardless of whom Leach tabs to succeed Breske, who also coached defensive backs, the new d-coordinator should be in a much better position to succeed next season. Among the 11 Apple Cup starters on defense, nine are projected to return next season.

Notable losses:
LB Cyrus Coen; LB Darryl Monroe; NT Toni Pole (and perhaps Xavier Cooper if he opts early for the NFL).

Top returnees:
LB Jeremiah Allison, 6-2, 224, sr.; NT Robert Barber, 6-3, 305, jr.; CB Daquawn Brown, 5-11, 175, jr.; DL Xavier Cooper, 6-4, 299, sr.; S Isaac Dotson, 6-1, 218, so.; DL Daniel Ekuale, 6-3, 281, so.; DB Beau Glover, 5-9, 174, jr.; CB Kevin Griffin, 5-10, 168, so.; S Sulaiman Hameed, 5-10, 182, so.; S Darius Lemora, 5-11, 182, so.; LB Ivan McLennan, 6-4, 236, sr.; LB/DE Kache Palacio, 6-2, 227, sr.; DL Darryl Paulo, 6-2, 261, sr.; LB Peyton Pelluer, 6-0, 224, so.; CB Marcellus Pippins, 5-10, 163, so.; CB Pat Porter, 5-9, 163, so.; LB Tana Pritchard, 6-3, 225, sr.; S Taylor Taliulu, 5-11, 206, sr.; LB Paris Taylor, 6-3, 206, jr.; DL Destiny Vaeao, 6-4, 295, sr.; CB Charleston White, 5-10, 176, so.

Up-and-Comers:
DB Jeff Farrar, 5-11, 196, fr.; DE Kingston Fernandez, 6-2, 254, fr.; LB Drew Griffin, 5-11, 218, so.; LB Dylan Hanser, 6-4, 214, so.; LB Greg Hoyd, 6-1, 225, fr.; CB Sebastian LaRue, 5-10, 181, so.; LB Chandler Leniu, 6-0, 250, fr.; LB Frankie Luvu, 6-2, 219, fr.; DE Hercules Mata’afa, 6-2, 225, fr.; LB Kyle Newsom, 6-1, 220, sr.; S Deion Singleton, 6-1, 175, fr.; DT Ngalu Tapa, 6-2, 314, fr.

Look for:
Competition is an overused buzzword in coaching but that figures to be the theme for the Cougars’ secondary. WSU was hit hard by graduations in that unit (safeties Deone Bucannon and Casey Locker and cornerbacks Anthony Carpenter, Damante Horton and Nolan Washington) and it showed. The only returning senior was cornerback Tracy Clark and he was victimized for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage in the season opener against Rutgers.

That forced the coaches to integrate youth throughout the defensive backfield as true freshmen such as Hameed, Pippins and Porter — all of whom were initially targeted for redshirts — were pressed into duty. The inexperience and growing pains showed as the Cougs allowed an average of 296.6 passing yards per game, third-worst among FBS programs. A complete turnaround in one offseason might be too much to ask, but the Cougars should be in a better position in 2015.

Brown (pictured above) a second-year sophomore in '14, was the group's elder statesman and started every game save for ASU when he was suspended the first half for targeting. Brown did some noteworthy, sure-tackling work in run support -- he led the team with 82 tackles. With further seasoning and a good offseason, he has the tools to become one of the better corners in the league next season.

But for that to happen, Brown, as well as the entire group of Cougar corners and safeties, need to turn around. WSU was primarily beat in the secondary in 2014 not because of a disparity of talent, speed or athleticism. They were often in good position, especially in the latter half of the year. But they didn't read the receiver, turn and look for the ball -- and you simply cannot play defensive back that way. It figures to be Priority No. 1 for the new DB's coach this offseason to change that.

With Brown an obvious frontrunner for one corner spot, the opposite corner spot could be a battle royale as Griffin, Pippins, Porter and White all gained some experience in '14. And LaRue, a talented transfer from Texas A&M who sat out this past season, almost certainly would have started at some point had he been eligible. Given his work on the scout team, he too has to be considered among the frontrunners headed into the spring.

If that were not enough, verbal commits Treshon Broughton and Darrien Molton will certainly get their chance too once they sign and arrive in Pullman next year. If Austin Joyner re-commits to WSU, he also immediately gets into the mix for early playing time.

The safety position seems less settled. Hameed displayed impressive instincts during WSU’s 38-31 loss to Oregon but was slowed by an undisclosed injury the rest of the way. Taliulu has started the last two seasons but has never intercepted a pass. Lemora struggled in coverage at times in his first year playing college ball, while Dotson has not been able to stay healthy. Expect Singleton, who signed a financial aid agreement in October, and four-star verbal commit Kameron Powell to press for playing time — or even a starting job — next season.

The Cougars overhauled their linebacking corps during the season. Only BUCK Palacio started the season-opener against Rutgers and the Apple Cup. Those changes were necessary in order to infuse athleticism and speed to the unit but that also resulted in some inconsistency as Coen, who regularly started on the strongside, was the only senior. The tradeoff was some enhanced playmaking ability, particularly from Allison. Palacio had a team-high 6 1/2 sacks, while Allison added 3 1/2. Both return along with Pelluer, who emerged as a starter at the MIKE spot. Keep an eye out for Hoyd this offseason, he did a lot of good work on the scout team this past season.

On paper, losing Monroe is a hit but it also depends on which Monroe you're losing -- is it the Monroe of his first two seasons, or the Monroe of 2014 who gave up a bevy of explosion plays. Do not be surprised if former UCLA Bruin Aaron Porter, a JUCO verbal commit to WSU, competes for a starting position -- he is extremely versatile and could play any of the linebacker positions. Another verbal commit, Jonah Moi, is a sleeper who could turn heads in fall camp.

The defensive line loses Pole but this unit figures to be the strength of the 2015 defense. Cooper, a Tacoma native, should enter the season as an honors candidate. Cooper’s 6-foot-4, 299-pound frame gives him the size to contain the run game, while he also possesses enough athleticism to pressure the quarterback as he finished with a team-high 9 1/2 tackles for loss.

Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com this week reportedly said on KJR-AM he thinks Cooper could be drafted in rounds 3-4 were he to enter the NFL Draft early. TFY Draft Insider Tony Pauline disagreed earlier in the season, saying; "...west coast scouts unanimously feel it would be a mistake if Cooper opted for the draft and he’s better off returning for another season on the college field."

The 6-4, 295-pound Vaeao was a disruptive presence in spurts in '14, but needs to develop more consistency. Barber appears to be the most likely candidate to replace Pole. Ekuale was beginning to emerge at the end of the season and Paulo (seven TFL, two sacks) was taking it to a new level by the time the season had drawn to a close.

Three players that redshirted, Mata’afa, Fernandez and Tapa, also should factor into the equation -- especially Mata’afa, who was the subject of multiple video showcases at Cougar Club luncheons and oft-praised by Leach and the staff all season long. Leach takes a simple approach when determining whether a true freshman plays or redshirts - if he's a first- or second-stringer, he plays. That means DT Thomas Toki and JUCO DEs Jeremiah Mitchell and Devante Wilson will compete for early playing time. Mitchell might be the best bet among the rookies to earn a starting d-end job, he has the chance to be a really good one according to Scout.com's Greg Biggins.

Keys to the season:
The Cougar D played better than their stats suggest but it was a one-step forward, one-step backwards season in 2014. All the good done on first- and second-down can be undone, and then some, in allowing an explosion play on third down. The same holds true from drive to drive, as Leach pointed out after the ASU game when he lamented the lax defense following turnovers.

The Cougars were anemic in takeaways (8) and interceptions (3) this past season - if they hope to return to a bowl in 2015 that has to change and dramatically so. White was the only defensive back who intercepted a pass in 2014. You simply can't win with so few takeaways, particularly in this age of arcade-like offenses.

The pass rush improved as the season went on but it needs to be strong from the outset of the 2015 season. The linebackers need to take better angles and wrap up. Both the defensive line and linebacker units will be veteran-laden and should improve upon their 29 sacks and 77 tackles for loss next year. That should alleviate pressure on a secondary that again will be inexperienced.

But the secondary figures to be the top area of defensive focus all offseason. Brown is highly effective against the run game. But he also has not emerged as a difference-maker, and the trash talking won't be embraced by fans until he starts shutting receivers down out in the pattern. Hameed, White and Pippins all have high ceilings, but thy all need to make more plays in their second season, turn their heads and create turnovers. Given the amount of youth in the secondary, there might not be a more interesting unit to follow in spring ball. And of course what would help the unit the most, as evidenced by the Utah win, would be a front seven getting more consistent heat on the QB.


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