Previewing the Cougs: LBs will lead the 'Killer D'

FROM THE CARDIAC KIDS to the Palouse Posse, the Cougar Nation has never been short of nicknames to describe certain teams or units. There was the RPM backfield in the early 80s and the Fab Five receiving corps in the late 90s. And now, with the 2005 campaign nearly upon us, comes the Killer D.

Named in honor of the three starting Ds at linebacker -- Derting, Davis and Dildine -- head coach Bill Doba and staff hope it's a moniker that sticks.

Washington State's defense, so dominant in the 10-win seasons of 2001, 2002 and 2003, hit the skids in the second half against Oregon last season and never turned things around.

Doba is planning on a return to head-cracking form this season, in large part because he has what he didn't have a year ago: experienced talent. The Cougar defense returns six starters, as well as all 11 players who saw action on the second unit last season.

As nicknames go, "Killer D" is one that carries a lot of expectations. But clearly, the Cougars are comfortable with it --- the moniker is one that the school wasn't bashful about including in the brand new media guide.

And with a fully healthy Will Derting (6-0, 235) leading the way at middle linebacker, it's easy to understand why. His surgically repaired wrist is 100 percent, says Doba. Coupled with a pair of stellar wingmen and an improved defensive line, he's in position to leave WSU as the most celebrated defender in school history.

He's fast, he's furious and he hits with his face. The Sporting News has forecast him to be Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. He's on the watch list for the Lombardi, Nagurski, Lott and Bednarik awards and is a lock to be among the top ten candidates for the Butkus Award.

A year ago, despite playing with a large cast on his wrist, Derting led WSU in tackles with 93 and had 11.5 tackles-for-loss. He also had four pass breakups, returned one fumble and forced two others.

"All that while playing with a broken wrist that required him to wear a cast for more than half the season and significantly reduced his work in the weight room, where he has always excelled," notes the WSU media guide.

Derting, a fifth-year senior from Okanogan who has started 29 of the 33 games he's suited up for, needs just 57 more tackles to break into WSU's career top ten and one more TFL to join the career top five in that category.

REST ASSURED, THOUGH, that as linebacking goes, Derting is not a one-man show.

On either side of him are two of the most prolific high school running backs in Washington state history: Scott Davis, who piled up 4,457 career rushing yards and 61 TDs at Kennewick's Kamiakin High from 1999-2001, and Steve Dildine, who set a single-season state record with 2,265 rushing yards for Bethel in 2001.

The two juniors are naturals on defense, however.

Davis (5-10, 228), on the strongside, figures to contend for post-season honors this season. He turned in a break-out campaign in 2004, finishing second on the team behind Derting with 86 total tackles, including 8.5 for loss. He also recovered three fumbles --- including the one that set-up WSU's last-second win over Arizona --- and caused four others.

Dildine (6-1,229), at weakside linebacker, saw considerable action in 2004 and started four games when Pat Bennett was injured. He posted 29 tackles. The year before, he played in all 13 games and started one. What makes Dildine intriguing is that this will be just his fifth year playing organized football. Until his senior year, he spent his prep career as a competitive BMX bike rider. He's built like a rock and has progressed by leaps and bounds each season on the Palouse. Look for him to make a serious mark in 2005.

Behind those three Ds, the Cougars' linebacking depth falls off considerably.

Fourth-year junior Brian Hall (6-2, 242) of Walla Walla is a gamer who can play inside or outside, but he's coming back from a stinger that sidelined him much of last season. Chris Baltzer, a 6-2, 228-pound junior from Eugene, has been a fixture on special teams over the past two seasons and saw spot duty on defense in 2004. A middle linebacker, he excels in pass coverage and brings the same nasty attitude to the field as Derting.

No other Cougar linebackers have played a down in a real college game.

Second-year freshmen Steffan Blume (6-1, 218) and Alex Hamill (5-10, 209), redshirts a year ago, are penned in on the outside behind Davis and Dildine.

Blume was twice named Greater Spokane League defensive player of the year while at Clarkston High. A first-team All-State selection, he set a Clarkston school record for tackles with 189 over his junior and senior seasons.

Hamill, a two-way star from Couer d' Alene, was first-team All-State and the Inland Empire League co-player of the year in 2003 when he posted 104 tackles and forced seven fumbles while also catching 38 passes for 503 yards.

THE COUGARS' DEPTH AT linebacker is so tenuous that incoming freshman Cory Evans (6-2, 215) --- the "Bayou Bomber" from tiny Lena, Louisiana --- already is slotted at No. 3 on the weakside behind Dildine and Hamill.

There's not yet a No. 3 on the depth chart at strongside behind Davis and Blume, so look for one or more of Evans' incoming classmates to get a shot at early playing time there. That group consists of Jason Stripling (6-0, 215) of Tyler, Texas; Greg Trent (5-11, 220) of Keller, Texas; Courtney Williams (6-2, 205) of Dorsey High in Los Angeles; and Lamar Brumfield (6-3, 215) of Carson, Calif.

Evans, who also has what it takes to play safety, was a two-time Louisiana Class 1A All-State pick, posting 213 tackles and intercepting 14 passes over his junior and senior seasons. He also starred on offense, racking up 2,700 rushing yards and 37 TDs in those two seasons.

Despite playing in Louisiana's smallest classification, Evans built a reputation as a ferocious hitter. "I've been coaching 31 years and he's the best I've ever had," his prep coach, Tom O'Kelly, told CF.C earlier this year. "He's awesome. He has lots of, what we call 'Sports Illustrated pictures'. He's a decleater guy."

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