2016 COUGAR OUTLOOK: Defense

ON PAPER, Washington State loses five of 11 starters on defense in looking ahead to 2016. On the other hand, 16 of 22 in the two-deeps on WSU’s official depth chart – they all return. The biggest positional turnover next season on defense will be found up front. But the Cougs don’t lack experience.

Notable losses
DL Darryl Paulo, DL Destiny Vaeao, RUSH Kache Palacio, RUSH Ivan McLennan, LB Jeremiah Allison, S Taylor Taliulu.

Top returnees
DL Robert Barber, DL Hercules Mata’afa, DL Daniel Ekuale, DL Ngalu Tapa, DL Reggie Coates, DE Jeremiah Mitchell, DE Kingston Fernandez, LB Peyton Pelluer, LB Logan Tago, LB Dylan Hanser, LB Frankie Luvu, LB Chandler Leniu, LB Paris Taylor, LB Aaron Porter, S Shalom Luani, S/N Isaac Dotson, S/N Parker Henry, S Suli Hameed, CB Darrien Molton, CB Marcellus Pippins, CB Kirkland Parker, DB Treshon Broughton, DB Darius Lemora.

DL Hunter Mattox, DL T.J. Fehoko, LB Nnamdi Oguayo, S Hunter Dale, DB Calvin Green, S Kameron Powell, CB/S Deion Singleton.

Two of the three down-lineman spots in Washington State’s 3-4 will feature new starters next season (and it's three of four down linemen if you subscribe to WSU in actuality playing more of a 4-2-5).

But while end Darryl Paulo and tackle Destiny Vaeao graduate, enter Hercules Mata’afa and Daniel Ekuale.

Ekuale, a third-year sophomore this season, had just one start but posted 20 tackles (16 solo) with four tackles for loss and a forced fumble – good numbers for a d-lineman reserve.  Mata’afa meanwhile looked like a star in the making -- the second-year freshman is tied for the team lead with six sacks, despite zero starts in 12 games. He has 29 stops (18 solo) and 10 tackles for loss this season and watching him run, he at times looked more like a linebacker or even a safety than a d-lineman.

At end, walk on fourth-year junior Reggie Coates was listed as Paulo’s backup all season long on the depth chart. He’s played in six games with three stops and while he certainly is in the mix, the guess here is the Cougs will give Mata’afa a long look here in the spring, with Mata’afa listed at just 243 pounds this season and Paulo at 255.

At tackle, it would then follow that Ekuale (6-3, 288) opens the spring as the leading candidate for the d-tackle spot vacated by the graduating Vaeao (6-4, 298). (Still, it’s worth noting Mata’afa was listed as the backup tackle behind Vaeao all season long on WSU’s official depth chart and Ekuale was the No. 2 at the nose. The first day of spring ball will be intriguing just to see where they line up.

At nose tackle, Robert Barber returns for his senior season in ’16, having started 11 of 12 games in 2015 and posting 16 tackles (10 solo). His main competition, assuming Joe Salave’a doesn’t place Ekuale here, could come from Ngalu Tapa. 

Tapa’s first two seasons have been marked by injuries but he’ll still only be a third-year sophomore next season.  And he was healthy the second half of this season -- against Stanford’s big o-line and 7-8 OL sets, Tapa saw action. He was not credited with any stats, but the 6-2, 314-pound dump truck did help plug up the Cardinal line.

Among the other d-linemen in the mix next season:  Jeremiah Mitchell (6-4, 256) was a guy I thought would solidly place himself into the two-deeps despite it being his first season at WSU, but he spent this season mostly dinged up. He’ll be a fifth-year senior in ’16.   Kingston Fernandez (6-2, 256) had his moments in practice, but not a whole lot of “oh wow” moments to climb the depth chart. Still, he’ll only be a third-year sophomore next season. 

Hunter Mattox (6-3, 259) spent his true freshman season redshirting and learning the ropes, he could be ready to take that next step this spring and in fall camp -- it would be a surprise if he's not playing at least some in rotation in '16.  And T.J. Fehoko (6-1, 273) just practiced in pads for the first time this season coming off an Achilles injury he incurred before arriving in Pullman.

At the Rush, will it be Logan Tago or Dylan Hanser?  Or will it be Nnamdi Oguayo? Could Greg Hoyd find his niche here?  Lots of questions but WSU does appear in better shape than one might expect considering they’re losing the two senior co-starters. By the way, WSU listed Tago (6-3, 228) as a nickel on the weekly depth chart this season but he’s a Rush. (Walk on Tristan Brock (6-0, 240) had some nice TNF sessions here as well).

As compelling as the Rush spot figures to be, the WIL holds plenty of intrigue of its own. Is Frankie Luvu the heir apparent to Jeremiah Allison?  Is Paris Taylor ready to take the next step here? Might Chandler Leniu get some looks here or is he the solid No. 2 at the MIK behind starter Peyton Pelluer (assuming Pelluer, who leads the team with 98 stops this season, claims the starting gig in '16). 

Aaron Porter also factors in at the WIL/MIK and while he didn’t make as strong an impression as I thought he would in ’15, he’s incredibly versatile, and Year Two is often when the lightbulb truly turns on, particularly with a JUCO 'backer. Porter did some good, unheralded work on special teams this season, and this will be his last season to make his mark over on D.

At safety, the Cougs look to be flush.  Shalom Luani feels like a lock coming off a season where he was third on the team in tackles (86) and tied for the team lead in interceptions (3); pass break ups (6) and forced fumbles (2). What was best about Luani, though, was that he learned from his mistakes and rarely repeated them again, setting himself up for what could be a special senior season in '16.

Across from him, Isaac Dotson could go here or he could play nickel (more on that in the next section).  Dotson has struggled with injuries but he did play seven games with most coming in the latter half.

Another name to key on at safety is incoming JUCO safety Robert Taylor. He’s potentially good enough to start in his first season at WSU. If that ends up being the case, Dotson would seem to be the frontrunner at the nickel spot headed into fall camp.  But Taylor won’t arrive until the summer and fall camp - he won’t be here in the spring. And during this coming spring at safety, don’t forget about Suli Hameed, who missed this entire season with injury. 

Meanwhile, true freshman Hunter Dale spent this season learning the safety ropes -- but he played and got some experience under his belt. Kameron Powell spent his true freshman season redshirting after coming out of high school as a highly regarded prospect. Calvin Green is perhaps a corner but he got some looks both here and at nickel this season in practice. 

Deion Singleton definitely has the size (6-2, 190) to play safety and he showed good ball skills while redshirting his true freshman season where he was ineligible to play as a partial qualifier. But could Singleton instead be a corner for the Cougs in '16?

At corner, Darrien Molton and Marcellus Pippins are your frontrunners headed into spring ball but Kirkland Parker saw increased time as the season went along and Charleston White had three starts this season. Singleton, meanwhile, played more corner than safety during practice this year but that might not necessarily mean he lines up at corner this spring -- so No. 356 of the intriguing things to watch for the first day of spring ball is where Singleton lines up. Broughton could figure in here at corner too but the conventional thinking at the moment is his primary spot might be nickel.

The nickel spot could be straight forward or it could be in flux depending on which direction Alex Grinch goes at safety.  On one hand, you could simply have Isaac Dotson and/or Parker Henry here. But down the stretch this season, Dotson played more safety alongside Luani (though the guess here is while that might still be the case in spring with Taylor not yet having arrived, it might not be in fall camp and on into the season). There’s also Treshon Broughton and Darius Lemora, each of whom could figure into the starting nickel conversation if they clean up a few things and bring more consistency.

On defense as a whole, there looks to be lots of competition, lots of guys looking to rise to the top of the depth chart. But the big takeaway coming out of it is while WSU might be losing five of 11 defensive starters, there’s a decent amount of returning experience and lot of reasons for optimism in the cupboard.

There are any number of defensemen in the 2016 class who could make an early impact.  In addition to Taylor, LBs Chima Onyeukwu and Jihad Woods might be the most physically ready but there are several others who may surprise. (Click here for the verbal commit list, keeping in mind the vast majority of the class won't sign until Feb. 3).

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