Spring: Despite losses, Coug DL rising?

PULLMAN -- Expect the Cougars to bring pressure from the d-line this spring, despite new faces in the two deeps. Two-thirds of Washington State's starting 2014 defensive line is graduating, but veterans remain and young talent waits hungrily for a promotion from Thursday Night Football. There's also a four-star JUCO transfer already in town who could also provide an immediate impact.

The Cougars figure to rely heavily on senior Destiny Vaeao (6-4, 295, pictured above) this season. Vaeao was invaluable to the team last season when nose tackle Toni Pole was out, moving in from the outside and playing the nose tackle position. Pole has graduated so Vaeao's versatility could become even more of a tool for the Cougars this spring and in the season.

Defensive tackle Xavier Cooper is also gone, leaving a vacancy where he recorded 37 tackles and a team-high 9.5 tackles-for-loss last season. Lyman Faoliu, who was used in a backup role last season, is also graduating. But the replacement process might not be as involved as it appears on paper.

New defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has said he will stick with the base 3-4 with a few new wrinkles. In that formation, the Cougars have a good-sized number of options, including fifth-year-senior Darryl Paulo (6-2, 261).

Paulo played in all 12 games in 2014 and started three. He was disruptive, as indicated by the seven tackles for loss among 18 stops. He recorded two sacks, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble. Jeremiah Mitchell out of Riverside will also get plenty of looks this spring.

Mitchell led Riverside with 13.5 tackles for loss this past season and posted 23 for loss in his two seasons at RCC. He had six sacks among his 44 stops in 2014. Mitchell's early enrollment gives him a leg up and it will frankly be a surprise if he hasn't shown he belongs in the rotation by spring's end -- this does not appear to be a JUCO player who will need a full year of seasoning before contributing at the Pac-12 level. But the spring will be about him proving that.

Robert Barber (6-3, 305) spent his time as a backup last season at the nose tackle position, and Daniel Ekuale (6-3, 281) subbed in at tackle behind Cooper. Both played all 12 games in 2014.

Ekuale recorded nine tackles, including three for a loss and one sack. Barber made six tackles, including one for a loss. Ekuale in particular this past season showed he might be on the verge of a breakout spring while Barber is finally starting to put together a stretch where he's been healthy. Both are capable of making an impact this spring.

And then you have three freshmen who spent this past season redshirting. Hercules Mata'afa (6-2, 225), Ngalu Tapa (6-2, 314) and Kingston Fernandez (6-2, 254) will battle to crack the two-deeps.

Mata'afa last season in practice brought good pressure although he didn't show up as much in my stat notebook as often as Fernandez or Tapa did in Thursday Night Football. But stats are sometimes deceiving and no redshirting freshman was praised by Mike Leach and the WSU coaches more last year than was Mata'afa. He was the subject of multiple video showcases at Cougar Club luncheons and expectations are high for him this spring.

Tapa demonstrated his ability to push back offensive linemen in Thursday Night Football. He made some sacks, but the push he created often led to group sacks or opened lanes for other pass-rushers to hit the quarterback.

Fernandez was a mainstay in the offensive backfield, recording sacks and stopping ball-carriers trying to get to the edge. He also was able to secure a couple of fumbles, and returned a couple for touchdowns.

Four-star recruit Thomas Toki (6-1, 300) will arrive from St. Francis High after spring ball has concluded. Asking a true freshman interior d-lineman to go from high school to competing on Saturdays in the Pac-12 is asking a lot. The preference would be to redshirt him (like Tapa). But Toki does appear at least physically ready to compete for a spot during fall camp -- a situation that bears watching later this summer.

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