Spring Ball Preview: Cougar Defense

PULLMAN -- The Cougar defense figures to see a whole lot of change when spring football drills begin on March 26. First-time defensive coordinator Alex Grinch will start putting his stamp on a stop corps where the secondary and linebacker positions have questions and new faces. WSU also lost some familiar names on the d-line, but they also have players in the wings up front.

WSU will stick with a 3-4 base, Grinch has said, and that will mean the Cougs will need to replace two-thirds of its d-line. Gone are 6-4, 299-pound tackle Xavier Cooper and 6-1, 301-pound nose tackle Toni Pole to the NFL and graduation, respectively. The Cougars return end Destiny Vaeao (6-4, 295, pictured above).

But Grinch also told Cougfan.com the 3-4 base may or may not look like similar to it did last year. Grinch understandably didn't want to give away the details but if the Cougs can find a way to better tap into Vaeao's athleticism and turn it into more production, that would certainly be a plus. Vaeao, who never had the benefit of redshirting, was mostly solid during his junior season but he was also unspectacular, with 14 tackles in 10 games. Given his skills set, it's reasonable to expect better numbers and production in '15.

A pleasant surprise from last year: Darryl Paulo (6-2, 261) who was listed as Vaeao's backup last season. A fifth-year senior in 2015, Paulo had seven tackles-for-loss among his 18 tackles coming off the bench (he was credited with three starts in '14).

Assuming Paulo stays at end, who slides in at tackle and on the nose? Robert Barber (6-3, 305) figures to get the first crack at the starting NT job. Entering his redshirt-junior season, he's battled injuries over his career but saw time in all 12 games this past season. Ngalu Tapa (6-2, 314) spent this past season redshirting and spring ball will give him a golden opportunity to show if he's ready to challenge at the Pac-12 level after a Sacramento-area star turn in high school.

Daniel Ekulae was Cooper's backup last season. Three of his nine tackles last year were for loss and he posted one sack. With Cooper gone, he figures to get a lot of reps this spring.

On paper and with only last season's weights available, Hercules Mata'afa (6-2, 225) and Kingston Fernandez (6-2, 254) both seem a little light for the T or E spots on the Cougar d-line. But Mata'afa was the subject of continual glowing reports by WSU assistant coaches at the Spokane Cougar Club luncheons last year - more than any other young gun on either side of the ball. He figures to get a very long look this spring. Fernandez has all the tools and showed flashes during Thursday Night Football. But it's a matter of him putting it all together that will determine if he climbs the depth chart ladder this spring.

JUCO transfer defensive end Jeremiah Mitchell (6-4, 265) is already on campus and is likely compete for a starting job. Mitchell recorded 43 total tackles, six sacks, and a team-high 13.5 tackles for a loss last season for Riverside. The Pac-12, of course, is a different animal but Mitchell was a good get for the Cougs back in December and he may need less time than most. A good scenario for Cougar fans would be to see him playing "faster" at the end than at the beginning of the 15 practice sessions - that would show him picking things up in rapid fashion.

As for the secondary, there's hope. The Cougars took their knocks in 2014 but they improved some in the final half of the season and many of their overall mistakes were mental rather than physical. But it also didn't help matters when their most experienced corner, Daquawn Brown, rendered himself dismissed. Kevin Griffin and walk on Beau Glover also left the team to focus on school.

Safety Taylor Taliulu (5-11, 206) is the lone senior of the group in 2015, echoing the start of the 2014 campaign when Tracy Clark was the lone senior.

But the hope lies in the young defensive backs from a season ago, now eager to show they are battle-hardened sophomores who have turned a corner. Charleston White (5-10, 176) before he got injured raised some eyebrows, and so did Sulaiman Hameed (5-10, 182), and Marcellus Pippins (5-10, 163). Pat Porter (5-9, 163) got his shot too in four games but struggled in a starting role vs. Arizona and USC. But what Porter does with those experiences this spring will be key.

Corner Sebastian LaRue (5-10, 181) is perhaps the most likely to break out. LaRue was held out due to NCAA transfer rules and toward the end of last season after another strong Thursday night outing, Mike Leach said LaRue would have challenged to start if he were eligible. On paper, headed in, he has to be among the favorites to earn a starting job by the time the regular season kicks off.

Fellow corner Jeff Farrar (5-11, 196) also figures to be in the mix. He bided his time last year in Thursday Night Football as a true freshman as well.

The secondary as a whole last season was burned far too often and had an astounding lack of takeaways - WSU defensive backs totaled one interception last season, and the team finished tied for last place in the Pac-12 with only three interceptions. That's going to be one of the top jobs for Grinch this spring and it should be made easier that many in the group got their feet wet last year and should play a more relaxed, confident game.

Apart from Taliulu, Darius Lemora (5-11, 182) is the most experienced safety and started 10 games last season as a second-year freshman. He ran hot and cold last season and like Fernandez, he has the tools but it's a matter of putting it all together this spring. Still, it's important to remember for players like Lemora and Porter, last year was their first year playing at the Pac-12 level. And when you usually see the most improvement in a player is between their first and second seasons on the field. Deion Singleton arrived in January and how much rust the 2014 class holdover needs to shake off and how fast he assimilates Grinch's defense figure to determine if he is a contender for a starting gig or if he needs more seasoning.

The linebackers will also feature some new faces this spring. Cyrus Coen, Darryl Monroe, Tana Pritchard and Chester Sua are gone. The group will now be led by senior-to-be Jeremiah Allison (6-2, 224) and Peyton Pelluer (6-0, 224), who will be a redshirt sophomore and started the final five games last season in place of Monroe. (For the record, Coen and Pritchard owned the other two interceptions for the Cougs in 2014).

Frankie Luvu (6-2, 219) began to assert himself more in the latter half of 2014. He lined up at BUCK a lot in practice but the guess here is he might be bound for the SAM - we'll see in spring. And two redshirting 'backers drew praise for their work on Thursday nights -- Greg Hoyd (6-1, 225) and Chandler Leniu (6-0, 250). In particular, Hoyd stood out to me and figures to challenge at one of the outside linebacker spots. SAM Paris Taylor and WIL Dylan Hanser also provide depth -- the question for them is if they're ready to challenge for turns.

Look for upperclassmen Kache Palacio (6-2, 227) and Ivan McLennan (6-4, 236) to battle for the starting job at the BUCK in the spring. McLennan provides versatility in that he can play the BUCK but he can also play as a down lineman. But Palacio started all 12 games at the BUCK last season and led the team with 6.5 sacks among his 57 tackles. McLennan wasn't far behind with 4.5 sacks.

The annual spring game will take place on April 25 in Spokane. It is expected to be the Cougs' 14th spring ball practice session, with the 15th and final practice a day or two later in Pullman.

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