No one is just handing them the starting jobs but from this chair, LB Chima Onyeukwu and safety Robert Taylor are faster and with more sideline-to-sideline coverage than the last year's starters now graduating (WIL Jeremiah Allison, S Taylor Taliulu). And if someone beats out Onyeukwu and/or Taylor, they’re going to have turned a corner themselves and shown greater quicks. Either way, WSU should be faster on D than last season. That in turn should lead to more disruption, and more takeaways.
2. Secondary rising
The Cougs are still young but have rising players (CB Darrien Molton, for example) and emerging veterans like Shalom Luani combined with a large number who could make their mark in the Pac-12 in 2016. This, after WSU improved markedly this past season in pass defense and takeaways.
3. D-line push
On paper, you don’t often get better when you’re replacing two of three down linemen in a 3-4 (T Destiny Vaeao, E Darryl Paulo). But this might be an exception. End Hercules Mata'afa has the potential to be a star in the Pac-12 after tying for the team lead in sacks last year despite not starting a single game. While it would be unfair to expect Daniel Ekuale to have the kind of year Vaeao had as a senior, that doesn’t mean he’s not capable of it coming off, despite only one start, a 22-tackle season with five TFL. Ekuale will be a fourth-year junior and just as Vaeao did in his fourth season, there are indications Ekuale could be ready to explode onto the Pac-12 scene. Robert Barber at the nose looks poised to have his best season in a Cougar uniform having started 11 of 12 games last season. All three earned praise from Alex Grinch following Midnight Maneuvers.
4. Grinch is entirely unsatisfied
Grinch told CF.C recently his message all offseason to the D will be this: A year older doesn’t automatically mean a year better. The Cougs’ defensive coordinator says improvement is needed in every area, and the WSU defense has a long ways to go. And that’s exactly the right mentality for a team that went from allowing 38.6 points per game to 27.7 ppg in Grinch’s first season on the Palouse.
Grinch isn’t into predictions, and the Cougs won’t even strap the pads on in spring ball for another month-plus. One thing he is confident in saying: WSU will give “extreme amounts of effort.” Effort on its own doesn’t guarantee success, of course. But it’s a requisite for any defense to reach its potential and Grinch is deadfast on checking that box.