The 3 most pleasant surprises on 2015 Cougs

TWO OF THE THREE most pleasant surprises on the 2015 Cougars each carried a certain level of hope and hype coming into the season, but without question they over-delivered this season at Washington State. The third solidified a position that had been a problem spot in recent years. Interestingly, given the notoriety of the Mike Leach Air Raid, none of the trio line up on offense.

Safety Shalom Luani

Luani, as advertised before the season, hits like a truck but what's been more impressive: his ever-increasing consistency and ball hawk skills. Luani is third on the team with 86 tackles (65 solo) and is tied at the top in both interceptions (3) and pass break ups (6) with corner Marcellus Pippins. Playing safety in the Pac-12 requires a lot of pre-snap reads and as soon as the ball is snapped -- quick and correct read and react skills.  A rookie who does it as well as Luani has this season is rare -- Luani is a junior but a WSU rookie in coming from junior college. It is often the second season where a junior college player starts to shine but Luani did so this year and while he made mistakes, he very rarely repeated those mistakes. All of it bodes well for Luani and the Cougars in 2016.
Defensive lineman Hercules Mata'afa
Undersized for a hand-down d-lineman at 6-2, 242 pounds, Mata'afa has a whole lot of natural strength and speed and he used it to great effect this season. Despite not starting a single game, he's tied for the team lead with six sacks and posted 10 tackles for loss among his 29 tackles (18 solo).  Just a second-year freshman, Washington State fans are salivating at what all Mata'afa might accomplish over his next three seasons on the Palouse but make no mistake about it - every offensive coordinator on WSU's 2016 schedule will be game planning for Mata'afa for when they meet up with the Cougs. Given his quicks and that in pursuit he looks more like a linebacker or even a safety, those OCs figure to have a tall task.

Kicker Erik Powell

Yes, Powell missed a 43-yarder in the rain that would have won the Stanford game but the only reason WSU was in position to win the game  was that Powell was 5-for-5 coming into that boot.  Overall, Powell had a solid year connecting on 18 of 24 boots - his 1.5 makes per game rank fifth in the Pac-12 despite WSU going for it on fourth down in the red zone a good number of times. Powell was a perfect 47 of 47 on extra points.  He kicked off 72 times with 19 touchbacks. That grades out to about average in the Pac-12 in terms of touchbacks (t-6th) but WSU by design mostly did not try to boot the ball into the end zone this season. WSU has struggled to find a reliable kicker in recent years and Powell was just 2 of 5 in 2014. His considerable improvement this season bodes well for the Cougs headed into 2016.

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