Sorensen: Is history on Will Derting's side?

WILL DERTING, THE most talked-about defender on the Palouse since the Army sent Maj. Edward Steptoe to Rosalia in 1855, has a chance this season to step into the history books himself. In the long line of great Cougar linebackers, he could be the first to be named first-team All-America.

John Blanchette, the venerable scribe from the Spokesman-Review, made a note of Wazzu's peculiar linebacking footnote in a story last season. Preposterous, I thought, at the time. Surely Anthony "Zeus" McClanahan made someone's list in the early '90s. Or, at the very least, LaVerne Torgeson in the '50s.

So I did some checking. Blanchette was right.

Not Torgeson. Not the two most prolific tacklers in WSU season history, Lee Blakeney and Brian Forde. Not early 70s firebrand Tom Poe.

Not the ever-smilin' Zeus. He was named third-team All-American two straight seasons, but never first unit. Pac-10 Player of the Year Mark Fields was only accorded third-team plaudits in 1994.

The legendary Mel Hein, who was indeed a first-team All-American, doesn't rate because players in the era of the single-platoon were honored only for their work on offense. Hein, a marvelous linebacker, was picked at center.

Courtesy of The Sporting News, James Darling -- second-team All-America in 1996 -- is the man atop the totem poll Derting aims to scale. And from the looks of the national pre-season football magazines, that's going to be no easy climb -- particularly with the hype surrounding A.J. Hawk (Ohio State), D'Qwell Jackson (Maryland), Chad Greenway (Iowa) and Ahmed Brooks (Virgina).

Despite an ample VHS collection of SportsCenter highlights. Despite the national awakening to his greatness at Notre Dame two seasons ago. Despite his colorful, phoneless youth. Despite the number, 51, that screams linebacking legend. And despite earning "watch list" status for virtually every major defensive award out there, second-team All-American is as high as any of the magazines are picking our favorite calf roper from Okanogan County.

I know that being hampered with a cast on his right hand and arm all of last season didn't exactly help his star turn for 2005, though you have to admit it's pretty impressive he still led the team in tackles, with 93 -- 11.5 of them for losses.



My belief is that Derting's stock will skyrocket on Sept. 9, the Friday evening when the Cougars will have ESPN all to themselves in a nationally televised game at Nevada. The announcers, rightly, will gush about Derting from the get go --- and no doubt roll lots of footage from his three-interception breakout against the Wolfpack back in 2002.

From there, look for a vastly improved Cougar defensive line to aid Derting's cause. Ends Mkristo Bruce and Adam Braidwood should contend for Pac-10 honors and sophomore tackles Aaron Johnson and Ropati Pitoitua are shaping up as big-time talents.

There's no better friend to a middle linebacker than a solid front. Too many times last season, the young -- and injured -- line was overmatched. As one coach quipped, Derting too often seemed to have a 300-pound offensive lineman in his lap the moment the ball was snapped.

Derting's quest ultimately may be decided on three successive weekends in October, when the Cougars play UCLA, Cal and USC. Big markets. Good teams. And ABC's cameras rolling against Troy and, in all likelihood, one of the others as well.

Whether he's All-American or simply All-Palouse in 2005, Derting ranks in my book as the greatest Cougar linebacker there ever was. Apologies to three of my all-time favorites -- Lee Blakeney, Ron Childs and Steve Gleason --- but Derting is truly out of this world.

NOTABLE DERTING NOTES:
* With 225 career tackles to his credit, Derting needs just 28 more to tie Brian Flones at No. 15 on the WSU all-time list and 57 more to tie Steve Gleason at No. 10.

* Derting is tied with Childs, Erik Howard, Chad Eaton and others at No. 6 on the WSU career list for tackles-for-loss. With 30.5, he needs one more to pass Raonall Smith at No. 5. He should pass Rien Long and Keith Millard by the end of September, putting him at No. 3 behind D.D. Acholonu (44.5) and DeWayne Patterson (52.5). If he catches Patterson, I guarantee he'll be a first-team All-American.

* One of the pre-season magazines quoted WSU linebackers coach Leon Burtnett as saying that if Derting had USC's defensive line playing in front of him last season he would have been a slam dunk for the Butkus Award.

* Derting is a two-time grand champion in the beef fitting and showing competition at the Okanogan County Fair. His parents own a cattle ranch and Will is majoring in agriculture.

* Derting is the 12th member of his family to attend WSU, following in the footsteps of sister Bess, four cousins, three uncles and three aunts.

About the author: Paul Sorensen was a first-team All-America safety for Jim Walden's Cougars in the early 1980s. He played professionally in the USFL and NFL before becoming a long-time color commentator on Cougar radio broadcasts.

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