Youth to be served at point of attack

Perhaps the most oft-asked questions this offseason have to do with the defensive line. One of the primary reasons Washington State has performed so well on D the past three years has been the ability to freely rotate up front. That experience will be called upon as the Cougs embark upon the '04 season. And defensive coordinator <b>Robb Akey</b> is excited about the prospects.

Defensive tackle Steve Cook looked phenomenal at times last year in a season interrupted by injury. Most promising, Cook picked up right where he left off after returning from the broken foot and was a force both late in the season and also in the Holiday Bowl. And then there's Adam Braidwood.

"If you start at the front, you look at Adam Braidwood and Steve Cook," said coach Robb Akey when asked who look to be the starters on the d-line. "Steve Cook has played a helluva role for us the previous 2-3 seasons. He was rotating in and out entire games the last 2-3 years so we're expecting real good things from him."

"Adam Braidwood was a constant rotator all season long, and even his freshman year he had some pretty decent playing time for a true freshman."

There has been some speculation that Braidwood might move inside from his defensive end spot. There are no plans for that to occur. Akey mentioned the only way he thought that would happen would be out of some desperate necessity as a stop-gap measure, such as an incredible run of injuries to the tackles.

"No, I really want to keep him at end," said Akey. "I think he plays it well. Our goal is to keep him out there."

"Those two have the most experience coming back – and I was also pleased with what (defensive end) Mkristo Bruce did. His playing time increased as the season went on."

"So there are some guys there that have been in big time games, and in (crunch time.) Each of those guys played a great role for us. That - I'm excited about."

In addition to the one other tackle spot, questions regarding depth and what that will enable the Cougs to do on defense will be asked, and answered, this offseason.

"Obviously we need to find out who's going to be the other defensive tackle and then what's our depth going to look like. Are we going to have four guys that are going to have play all the time? Are we going to be able to rotate six? Are we going to have eight that we can rotate?"

That should be music to every defensive lineman's ears. There is an opportunity this offseason, from the summer workouts to the weight room to Spring Ball to Fall Camp. The opportunity to compete for playing time—its right there for the taking.

"I don't think we'll know entirely the answer to that question until we get into our two-a-day camp," said Akey when asked about who will be where on the line. "Spring will tell us some, but there's a lot of youth in there."

"Now I think we've got some good talent that are youngsters in that defensive line, so therefore you're looking at how quick can you get them to mature – physically as well as the ability to mentally be able to handle what they're doing."

Is there another speed rushing defensive end who could emerge, like an Isaac Brown or another D.D. Acholonu?

"There are some guys there – Reyshawn Bobo is one who, at the very least, I hope will be able to provide some pass rush for us.. kind of like Isaac and D.D. did early in their careers."

And there are certainly more players who have an opportunity to step up and make a serious impact in ‘04.

"(DE) Matt Mullenix is a kid I'm really excited about," said Akey. "He plays hard, and he's got a great motor. While he's going to be a redshirt freshman, he also grayshirted the year before that, so its not like he's (green) going in there. There's reason to believe he can be (a significant contributor.)"

"Odell Howard, we need him to step up and take advantage of an opportunity. He got eased into it a bit, he got some playing time this year. So we need to challenge him to step up, hopefully he'll take over that other tackle position, and certainly he'll be able to take advantage of the summer and continue to get his body ready."

And the cupboard is stocked with still more young talent.

"The other guys are pretty much youngsters," said Akey. "Aaron Johnson is a big guy, he's a big, big body. And we'll need to see if he's strong enough for us to be a factor in there."

"Ropati Pitoitua is a big son-of-a-gun, how fast can he adjust to playing at the Pac-10 level? He'll get Spring Ball, Summer and two-a-day camps, so that will tell us a lot there."

"Then we've got some guys like Brian Boyer. He was an end, went to tackle, and didn't get to do anything this year because he had that back surgery."

It also remains to be seen what a couple of Canadian players, defensive tackle Kevin Williams and DE Jon Conlin, can bring to the table, as they return from injury.

"He and Braidwood were Canadian buddies," said Akey, referring to Williams. "He's a big body, but he didn't get to practice much this year—he had a lot of injury problems, so he's a real unknown entity (to this point.)"

And how is Conlin's rehab progressing, as he comes back from a torn ACL?

"Appears to be real good," said Akey. "They sounded like they had a lot of confidence in the surgery. He's been busting his tail in his rehab."

That's something that will serve Conlin well.

"Yeah he does," said Akey, when asked if Conlin had a great work ethic. "That's a great attribute of his and that's one of the things we liked when we recruited him."

"We thought he had a real good motor. We're excited about what he's going to be able to do, and we've got to find out what he's going to be able to do. Both by obviously getting that knee stronger and also getting his body up to Pac-10 caliber. He's a young guy (so one would hope he'd heal quickly and have that desire to really hit the weight room.)"

"We're real hopeful he's going to be a good one for us."

Because of the injury, Conlin hasn't been able to work as much as he'd probably have liked to on some of the strength building exercises. But he's getting there.

"He's gotten a little bit bigger," Akey said of Conlin. "Your big strength gains and obviously the major weight gains are going to come from your lower body. So he didn't have that ability to do the squats, the cleans, but it didn't keep him from doing everything he could do full speed. So he's been able to gain some upper body strength."

One thing that will certainly help Conlin, and every other player, is the tremendous strength program headed by Hall-of-Famer coach Rob Oviatt and the training staff.

"We have an outstanding strength coach and a great training crew, so they'll get that lower body caught up," Akey said of Conlin. "So with his work ethic combined with that, we expect (him) to go on like he didn't miss a beat."

Important to the Cougs' success on the d-line in '04 is for guys to seize the opportunity in front of them this offseason—from the likely starters to the reserves battling for playing time. If the past few years are any indication, the players will do just that.

The ability to rotate in talented reserves is key. It helps to keep the starters fresh, it gives invaluable experience to the reserves for when crunch time arrives and they're also just that much more experienced when their time comes to be a starter.

"So those are some guys we'll take a look at and we'll see what kind of depth we end up having – whether we can end up rotating like we have been," said Akey.

"We've been blessed, being able to do that over the last three years."

Coming Wednesday, coach Akey offers insight on the defense as a whole

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