WSU Defensive Line: Fall Camp Preview

WASHINGTON STATE’s defensive line in 2015 may rise or fall on the youth in the two-deeps. At all three spots, a first- or second-year Cougar appeared on the post-spring depth chart. One youngster who didn’t show up on that chart could also make an impact when fall camp gets underway on Aug. 8.

The Cougs do have some veteran d-linemen back -- two of the starters on the post-spring depth chart are seniors in tackle Destiny Vaeao and end Darryl Paulo. Fourth-year junior nose tackle Robert Barber is also back. That should help offset the losses of two starters in NT Toni Pole (graduation) and Xavier Cooper (early entry to NFL).

But perhaps the biggest crimson storyline headed into fall camp when it comes to the defensive line is about the youth.

Second-year freshman Hercules Mata’afa earned rave reviews last year. He was listed as the backup tackle behind Vaeao after the spring.

Third-year sophomore Daniel Ekuale is the starting nose tackle headed into fall ball, with Barber listed as the backup.

Jeremiah Mitchell is a fourth-year junior but he’s a Cougar rookie having transferred in from junior college in January. He’s in the mix at end, along with walk on junior college transfer Reggie Coates.

A big question is if incoming freshman Thomas Toki will redshirt. If he plays, is it due to need or because he’s that much better than the competition, or a combination of both? Toki, at 6-1, 307-pounds, is built low to the ground with a natural leverage advantage. But it’s a big step to go from high school to holing your own in the Pac-12 in the first year.

Like Toki, Hunter Mattox (6-4, 272) would probably also be best served by a redshirt season. But Mattox has an high ceiling and his playing career at WSU could start sooner rather than later depending on how fall camp unfolds. Incoming true freshman defensive end T.J. Fehoko could also open some eyes in fall camp, with 265-pounds stretched across his 6-1 frame.

Vaeao (pictured above) has never redshirted and he has all the athleticism in the world. He’s been solid for WSU his first three seasons but not the star some thought he would be headed into his final collegiate season.

Still, he’s versatile and was clearly the Cougs’ top returnee on the defensive line. When Pole was hurt last season, rather than bring in someone else Joe Salave’a moved Vaeao inside to the nose. The Cougs need a gate crasher this season, and headed into fall camp Vaeao looks like the best bet to fill that role.

New defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has said he will stick with the base 3-4 defense with a few new wrinkles. Paulo figures to be significantly involved after posting seven tackles for loss and two sacks among his 18 stops as mostly a backup last season.

Ngalu Tapa (6-2, 314) came in with a lot of fanfare last season but was dinged up at times last year. Now that he’s got his redshirt season behind him, Cougar fans are hoping his injuries are a thing of the past, too.

Devonte McClain moved to the d-line from the other side of the ball, if the 6-5, 314-pounder can become a solid two (or better) as a fifth-year senior, that would go a long way this season to allowing Salave’a to rotate and keep guys fresh.

DE Kingston Fernandez (6-2, 254) also redshirted this past season and could develop into an effective pass rusher in 2015.

THERE IS a good deal of talent and speed here. But there’s not as much experience and the unit is collectively on the lighter side for a 3-4.

If WSU is going to have a good year up front on defense, the Cougs are going to need to stay healthy and they’re going to need some veterans to play at a higher level than last year. And they’re going to need some young guys who are ready to come in and play at a Pac-12 level in their first year playing.

None of those things are a Herculean task, it’s just that the margin for error is smaller than you’d like.

What the Cougs need is simple: get regular pressure on the quarterback and better clog up the running lanes near and far. They did it at times last year, but not consistently. Getting heat on the QB is particularly important - do that and the defensive secondary will look a lot better, and pick off more passes.

Pressure and making life tough for the running backs ultimately needs to come from the defensive line but that doesn’t mean the d-lineman necessarily makes the tackle. By occupying their man and allowing a blitzer, say WIL Jeremiah Allison, to make key plays at key times, WSU can be effective in a pass happy league.

Washington State wasn’t terrible in third-down defense last season (56th nationally) but it felt like it in some losses. Boosting that ranking from middle of the pack has to be one of the top goals for the d-line and defense this season.

In addition to what’s been mentioned above, intriguing d-line storylines this fall camp will include the battle at nose tackle between Ekuale and Barber, if Mata’afa becomes a super sub or if he claims a starting job for himself, if Mitchell can be an impact player in his first season and what kind of numbers Paulo can put up as a full time starter.

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