Spring preview: WSU defensive line

IT PROMISES TO be an intriguing spring on the Washington State defensive line: the Cougs lose two of three starters to graduation, and yet they have a whole lot coming back.

Nose tackle Robert Barber (6-3, 309) returns, with Daniel Ekuale (6-3, 296, pictured) and Hercules Mata'afa (6-2, 245) the leading candidates headed into the spring at the tackle and end spots, respectively.

Ekuale, who will be a fourth-year junior, had just one start last season but good numbers for a backup d-lineman: 20 tackles (16 solo) with four tackles for loss and a forced fumble.  Mata’afa will be a third-year sophomore and tied for the team lead with six sacks last season, despite zero starts. 

Both have large shoes to fill (Destiny Vaeao, Darryl Paulo) but if they play to their potential, the Cougs could actually reload rather than rebuild on the d-line in 2016.  Being an every down player requires an adjustment, however, and the foundation for it begins in the spring for the two. Mata'afa is a rising star but his play last season means opposing offenses will key on him. With Ekuale, the question is how ready he is to take that next step.

Meanwhile, Barber started 11 of 12 games in 2015 and played with increasing confidence as the season went along. If he stays healthy, he could be in line for an even better senior season.

Behind those three are a promising, but unproven, group.  Keep an eye out for Hunter Mattox (6-3, 270) this spring. The second-year freshman may be ready to emerge and solidly place himself in the two-deeps. 

Garrett McBroom (6-3, 276) enrolled early in January out of junior college and with two-to-play-two, he's being counted upon to earn immediate playing time. That said, the jump from junior college to Pac-12 is pronounced, and this spring will be big for him to prove his value.

Nose tackle Ngalu Tapa (6-2, 314) has been dinged up at times and simply hasn't grabbed the spotlight at other times over his Cougar career -- but he’ll still only be a third-year sophomore this season.  He did some of his best work against Stanford’s big o-line and 7-8 OL sets this past season.  If Tapa has a banner spring, it would allow d-line coach Joe Salave'a much more flexibility in moving guys around and keeping offenses off balance.

A wildcard here is T.J. Fehoko (6-1, 272).  He spent virtually all of last season rehabbing what is thought to be an Achilles injury before practicing in pads for the first time during Sun Bowl practices.  What do the Cougs have in Fehoko?  The first real glimpse comes this spring.

D-linemen Jeremiah Mitchell (6-4, 270) and Kingston Fernandez (6-2, 260) have yet to emerge - both will be looking to raise their stock and challenge for turns this spring.  Mitchell (6-4, 256) will be a fifth-year senior, Fernandez (6-2, 256) a third-year sophomore.

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