Veteran youth to <br>tackle the middle

IT IS VIRTUALLY impossible to say, in February, what the depth chart might look like on a defense that graduated nine starters. But that didn't stop us from asking. We talked to Washington State defensive coordinator <b>Robb Akey</b> about the outlook for the linebacking position in '04. And while there will be two new starters at ‘backer, there is plenty of experience coming back. Not to mention talent.

"We have an idea of who they might be–you lose nine starters and that's a (significant) impact," said coach Robb Akey, when asked about the potential starters on D. "But we've also been blessed by being able to rotate some guys into some positions. So we do have some game experience coming back, and I think that's going to be a good thing."

The linebacking corps is led by one Will Derting, who emerged as one of the top linebackers in the nation last year and is a leading candidate for the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation's top LB performer.

"As you look at linebacker, you've got one starter coming back in Will Derting and obviously we think he's a pretty special guy," said Akey. "He's a helluva talent."

Along with Derting are three players who all shined brightly at various times last season.

"And Scott Davis and Pat Bennett and Steve Dildine, you know I think (the combination of those) four guys can really play well for us," Akey said. "I think they can be a good crew of linebackers.. You look at those four because of the experience they have."

"And you know, Scotty did a tremendous job on special teams for us, as did Dildine. And Scott was really starting to play quite a bit (at linebacker) when he had some injury issues. We'd probably have played him more had those not happened."

"And Pat Bennett has been there. He started a game for us this year when we needed him, and obviously had the big interception in the Arizona State game. He's a guy we trust in there—and that goes back to the Rose Bowl season also."

"So there's some game experience there. They weren't starters, but there's some experience that I think can benefit us."

Beyond these four linebackers there is additional talent as well—its just a matter of seeing how quickly they can develop. Brian Hall is one of those who might earn playing time.

"And then we'll need to see how the depth is. Is Brian Hall ready to become a full time kind of player? And what happens with the younger guys at that position."

Paul Stevens is another player to watch out for.. Does he look to be one who will make an impact in '04?

"Well, I certainly hope so," said Akey. "We have great expectations for him, he was a damn good player in high school and we wanted him bad. And he's here and he's doing a great job now."

And with Stevens, you won't have to look too hard; he is one big, strong athlete.

"Whether he plays linebacker, or—You know, he's 260 pounds now," Akey remarked. "So he may be a guy that's a big linebacker, or he may be a guy that becomes a defensive lineman. That's what (this offseason) is going to tell us.. what happens over the course of this winter and how things go in Spring Ball. I think he's going to play a factor for us – we need to find out where."

Back to Derting. There have been reports he's going to move to middle linebacker. Is that the case?

"There's a good chance of that," Akey said. "We're going to take a look at that in Spring practice."

"One thing is it keeps people from being able to run away from him. Put him on the strong side and they'll run weak. Put him on the weak side and they can run strong. But put him in the middle, they're going to have to block him both ways. It helps us in that respect."

There are other reasons for the possible move to the middle for Derting, namely how it affects the overall defense.

"We have one proven defensive tackle—we have some other guys we think will be fine—but they're not proven yet," explained Akey. "So, (moving Derting), that also helps solidify your run defense."

"It also gives you a better opportunity to take advantage of the guys that are ready to play at the linebacker position."

"I think Derting probably fits in there with his physicality, whereas Scotty Davis and Bennett and Dildine can use speed and we can play that on the outside, which kind of fits their body type a little bit better (than would MLB.) So I think it's a win-win deal for us."

ALSO A win-win for the Cougs was letter of intent day. Washington State signed some linebackers, and some kids who will probably develop into linebackers, on February 4th. Not all the faxes had been received when we talked to coach Akey so we didn't ask him specifics, but we inquired how the class looked to be shaping up in general.

"Yeah, we're real excited, I think this is a good class.. a pretty darned good class, and I think there's a lot of kids that can make things happen. I think they're going to be good players, we're real excited about it."

And while the quality of this class comes as a pleasant surprise to many, and especially to those who don't closely follow recruiting, it wasn't a surprise to the coaches. They expect to get this kind of student-athlete.

"And its kind of coming in the way we expected it to," said Akey. "We'll hold on until the end of the day, make sure that's the case—I don't want to talk about it until they all come in, but we're real excited about it."

Coming Thursday, coach Akey discusses the outlook for the secondary in ‘04

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