Previewing the Cougs: DL looks ready for rebound

GROWING PAINS ARE never fun, but what was once gangly and awkward can come on like gangbusters with time. For the Washington State defense, the 2004 season was the stuff of adolescence -- the kind of blemishes that no amount of coaching crème could hide. A young and battered defensive line, playing in a system that requires it to attack, had itself became the attacked.

The breakdown created a soft underbelly of vulnerability in the Cougars' linebacking and secondary corps. In giving up 646 yards to Oregon, 507 to ASU and 441 to Oregon State, WSU finished sixth in the Pac-10 in total defense, a sharp drop from what Cougar fans had grown accustomed in the two previous seasons that ended with appearances in the Rose and Holiday bowls.

Sacks plummeted from 50 in 2003 to 32 last season; quarterback hurries fell from 50 to 19.

"We were going through some growing pains last year," said defensive coordinator Robb Akey, citing a mixture of injuries, youth and coverage mistakes.

Expect some changes -- a deeper voice and a clearer complexion among defensive tackles, the heart of WSU's 2005 defense.

"With our attack-style defense, D-line is critical," defensive line coach Mike Walker said. "We never sit back. We're always attacking. We want our guys to be the first ones to make the tackle."

Even if linemen can't make the tackle, the linebackers behind them feed off the havoc created. Defense under Bill Doba has always been built from the inside out, and nobody missed stalwart defensive linemen like Jeremey Williams and Tai Tupai more last year than Will Derting, doubly hindered at middle linebacker by playing with only one good hand.

Fortunately for Derting, there's been a couple of Tupai- and Williams-like sightings on campus. Ropati Pitoitua and Aaron Johnson are now 300-pound seasoned sophomores, a year wiser, stronger and healthier than they've ever been, Walker and Akey said.

"You watch them walk into a room and they're big, nice looking cats," Akey said. "That's going to help tremendously, and it's going to keep some stuff getting into Will Derting's lap."

WSU's scheme thrives with depth at tackle. Working in with Johnson and Pitoitua will be 295-pound junior Odell Howard, Bryan Tarkington, a 300-pound junior college transfer, and Bryan Olson, a 280-pound senior who has been a late but pleasant surprise.

Others who may see action include redshirt freshman Matt Eichelberger, a 307-pounder from Bellingham who has shed 40 pounds since arriving last fall. "He's still got some growing to do, and he needs to get stronger," Walker said.

Another possible contributor is freshman Fevaea'i Ahmu, a highly touted prospect from San Diego's Serra High School. The comparisons to Tomasi Kongaika, a stout former WSU tackle, are inevitable.

"You never say a freshman is going to solve your problems in the Pac-10, but he has great explosion," Akey said.

On the outside, WSU for the most part won't match the speed and athleticism fans grew to love in watching D.D. Acholonu and Isaac Brown. But senior Adam Braidwood and Mkristo Bruce, a junior, bring another element: strength and technique. Bruce, who had 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks a year ago, should see those numbers jump with added strength.

"Those guys aren't as fast as DD or Ike, but they're really sound in their technique," Walker said. "Not only can they pass rush, but they can bull rush the pocket as well."

And they should have some help. Coaches believe senior Adam West, now at 6-6 and 265 pounds, has made the transition from tight end and has overcome injuries. They hope the same for Matt Mullenix, a 260-pound sophomore who showed great promise before suffering a serious knee injury. Paul Stevens is another redshirt sophomore coaches think will break out this year. Second-year freshman Mike Graise could also work into the rotation.

Third-year sophomore Reyshawn Bobo, a light but speedy end who seemed the prototypical third-down specialist, is still on the team and practicing, but has failed to meet NCAA eligibility requirements and cannot play in games this season.

The need for Acholonu-like speed was once thought to be addressed by Jason Roberts, but the 240-pound redshirt freshman left WSU a week ago for his home in Fresno. The homesick Roberts' departure surprised everyone, Akey said.

"I thought he was a guy with a great future here, but it has to be the right fit," he said. "If he wasn't going to be happy here, none of us benefits." Roberts plans to enroll at Fresno State.

Fortunately for the defense, a running back coach named Kelly Skipper came to the rescue. Skipper found defensive end Lance Broadus at West Los Angeles Community College, a year after the former Prep All-America linebacker signed with but was not admitted to Oregon. WSU was elated to learn Broadus was about to earn his associate's degree far ahead of schedule.

Skipper "just showed him a little love, and he came our way," Walker said.

Broadus, at an Ike Brown-like 220 pounds, has definitely flashed some speed in early fall workouts. "You do see his quickness and athleticism," Akey said. "We'll see what happens when we put the pads on."

GREAT DEFENSES ALL start up front, and if history repeats itself, this bodes well for the 2005 Cougars. "It's just like when Jeremey and Tai grew up," Walker said.

"They got better and better. We went to the Rose Bowl and the Holiday Bowl with those guys. If we get the push up the middle, with the veterans we have on the outside, hopefully we'll get a good rush."

Maybe even good enough to make the high-flying Akey go vertical, although he cautions that some questions can only be answered when the "pads come on and the bullets start flying." Full contact drills begin Thursday.

This is the second in a series of periodic articles previewing each element of the Cougars. Click here for the first installment: LBs will lead Killer D

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