WSU fall camp preview: Defensive line

ONLY ONE of three starters are back on the d-line for 2016 – and one of four if you count the Rush. So why are some so bullish on the Washington State defensive front headed into fall camp?

Returners: Hercules Mata’afa (R-So., 6-2, 255, pictured above); Robert Barber (R-Sr., 6-3, 305); Daniel Ekuale (R-Jr., 6-3, 290); Ngalu Tapa (R-So., 6-2, 319); Garrett McBroom (R-Jr., 6-3, 282) Nnamdi Oguayo (R-Fr., 6-3, 227); T.J. Fehoko (R-Fr., 6-1, 270); Hunter Mattox (R-Fr., 6-3, 272); Jeremiah Mitchell (R-Sr., 6-4, 275); Kingston Fernandez (R-So., 6-2, 271); Nick Begg (R-So., 6-5, 260); Taylor Comfort (R-So., 6-0, 260 walk on).

New faces:  Danny Bender (Fr., 6-3, 255); Lyric Bartley (Fr., 6-3, 260).

Departed scholarship players: Destiny Vaeao, Darryl Paulo, Kache Palacio, Ivan McLennan, Devonte McClain

What to like: End Mata’afa exploded onto the scene last year and is poised to make his first college start on Sept. 3 vs. Eastern. A freakish combination of size and strength last year, he put on 12 pounds this offseason and now checks in at 255.

The thing is, every opponent knows he’s a potential Pac-12 star in the making, and he will surely see double teams and running backs assigned to try and keep him from improving on last year’s numbers (32 tackles, 11 tackles-for-loss and 7 sacks despite no starts).

Barber started 12 games at the nose this past season and is a steady presence in the middle. D-line coach Joe Salave’a would love to see Tapa continue to build off a solid spring and be able to rotate him in liberally with Barber. Both are built low to the ground and can clog up the middle, allowing the linebackers and nickel to shine in run support.

Ekuale played in 13  games last season with one start, recording 22 tackles, 5 for loss, and forcing a fumble. But much like Vaeao (until his senior season) Ekuale hasn’t come close to reaching his potential. His fall camp at the tackle spot, and the competition with McBroom and/or others, should be revealing.

Biggest question: Who starts at Rush?  Dylan Hanser and Logan Tago are the frontrunners to replace the Palacio/McLennan combo of 2015.  And it figures to be a battle royale.

Mattox also bears watching – his ceiling is high but is he ready to challenge as a second-year freshman? Fehoko essentially remains an unknown. He spent all of last season recuperating from injury until the bowl week, when he finally got on the practice field.

Mata’afa could become  the most exciting player to watch on defense this season at Washington State but the depth and level of rotation across the Wazzu defensive front, just like at linebacker, figures to be huge. Cougar fans would be thrilled to see corner-turning performances this fall camp from some of those listed above.

On the newcomers, Bender is listed at 255 pounds on the just-released official roster, some 15 pounds heavier than before. On Bartley, as CF.C reported on the Luxury Suites back in February, he is expected to redshirt after offseason knee surgery.

RELATED STORY: Fall camp primer


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