Cougar DL offers a ton of story lines

WASHINGTON STATE will be replacing two-thirds of its starting defensive line now that Xavier Cooper has announced he’s going to the NFL. But the questions up front this spring will go beyond simply asking who is going to replace Cooper at the tackle spot. Indeed, the story lines are both numerous and compelling.

First, you have to figure third-year sophomore Daniel Ekuale (pictured above) heads into spring as the starting tackle now that Cooper is gone. Ekuale backed up Cooper last season and posted nine tackles in 12 games, with three TFL and one sack. Ekuale, from this chair, played better than his stats would suggest in his first season of action, particularly in the latter half of the campaign.

The lone returning starter from the Cougs’ three-man front is Destiny Vaeao at the end position. But it’s worth noting Vaeao started one game at nose tackle (Arizona) and it doesn’t appear that was because now-graduated Toni Pole or his backup, Robert Barber, were injured -- both are listed in the participation section of the WSU-Arizona official stat book.

Could Vaeao move to the nose on the depth chart at the start the spring?

Possible, though it would seem unlikely at this stage. Barber got the start at the nose in the penultimate game against ASU last season when Pole was injured, and it would make sense that Barber would at the very least begin the spring as an interior d-line starter.

Another intriguing piece of the d-line puzzle this spring will be fifth-year senior-to-beDarryl Paulo. He turned the corner in 2014.

Seemingly undersized and a "tweener" at 6-2, 261, Paulo started three games last season at end and as Vaeao’s backup there, posted 18 tackles with seven for loss and two sacks.

That group of four – Vaeao, Ekuale, Barber and Paulo -- appear the likeliest to head into spring as the starters on the depth chart. But keep an eye out for three who spent this past season redshirting.

DE Hercules Mata’afa might have been the young Cougar who drew the most praise this season from Mike Leach and the coaches -- on either side of the ball. DE Kingston Fernandez might be capable of a big leap forward this spring. And highly regarded DT Ngalu Tapa (6-2, 341) also spent this past season redshirting.

Mata’afa is the one most likely to make an impact this spring based on Thursday Night Football practices – he was the subject of multiple video showcases at Cougar Club luncheons all season long.

But don’t forget about the other two -- Tapa in particular. He was so dominant in high school coming out of the Sacramento area, he naturally has many Coug fans wondering if he might be primed to make an impact this spring.

You’ve also got a junior college DE-type in Jeremiah Mitchell who has signed with WSU in the 2015 class and will be on hand for spring ball. Mitchell is a 4-star, 6-5, 260-pounder and will have every opportunity to show he is ready to make the jump to Pac-12 football starting. He was a big get for Washington State in the mid-year JUCO signing period.

And that brings up another big spring story line: Will the Cougs keep their 3-4 base defense or will the new defensive coordinator install a 4-3 base?

And how the base -- and varying packages -- will impact BUCK linebackers Kache Palacio and Ivan McLennan do this spring will make for must-see viewing as well.

WSU also has three prep DL verbal commitments who assuming they sign in February would arrive in the summer – defensive tackles Thomas Toki and Dillon Faamatau and d-end Hunter Mattox.

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