Trio at LB looks set for long-term impact

PULLMAN -- With so much of the season's focus on senior linebacker Will Derting and his problematic left knee, a pleasant fact seemingly lost in the shuffle as WSU's maddening season unfolded was this: A bumper crop of rookie linebackers who are poised to carry on Derting's pad-popping tradition. Indeed, based on the sneak peak the youngsters gave us in 2005, the crimson faithful shouldn't be bashful about dreaming very big things from them in 2006 and beyond.

When all was said and done after WSU's Apple Cup victory, the season-long box score on the three rooks -- Cory Evans (weakside), Jason Stripling (strongside) and Greg Trent (middle)-- was impressive.

A collective 31 games played, 85 total tackles and two Pac-10 Player of the Week nominations.

In the beginning, when WSU was cruising through a pillow-soft non-conference schedule and Derting was up to his usual All-America tricks, only brief attention was paid to the trio of true freshmen linebackers who had shot up the preseason depth chart and into the respective No. 2 spots at their positions.

The rookies were being universally praised by Cougar players and coaches throughout August and September. But with the freshmen occupying spots behind junior starters Steve Dildine and Scott Davis and the senior Derting, it was assumed once the real games began, the youthful trio would be rarely heard from until the next round of spring practices.

But then Derting sprained his left knee against Oregon State in Week 4, and all hell broke loose. Who would replace the incomparable Derting? The hand-wringing in the grandstands was in overdrive.

And suddenly, at least one member of the Kiddie Corps was under the bright lights: Trent.

Stepping in for Derting, he promptly amassed 69 tackles (37 solo) -- second-most on the team this season behind junior safety Eric Frampton. He had three tackles for loss and one sack. He also recovered a fumble against Oregon -- a game in which he posted a career-high 13-tackles and earned a nomination for Pac-10 defensive player of the week.

He made plenty of rookie miscues along the way, but notice was served rather loudly that the Cougars had a gamer on their hands.

Jason Stripling

Evans and Stripling didn't play nearly as much as Trent, but each made contributions on special teams and in spot defensive situations that offered glimpses of their high upside. Stripling had seven tackles (five solo) on the season, while Evan recorded 18 tackles (six solo), two tackles for loss and one sack.

The Southern-bred group was brought to WSU by linebackers coach Leon Burtnett, who recruits the South for WSU.

Trent was an all-district defender at Keller (Texas) High, where he was a teammate of Cougar freshman tailback DeMaundray Woolridge. While dismissed as too short by Texas and Oklahoma, Trent, at 5-foot-10 and 230 pounds, is the same size as NFL standout Zach Thomas --- and has a similar nose for the ball and never-ending motor.

"He loves to hit," said junior defensive end Mkristo Bruce of Trent. "I see some of Will (Derting) in him."

Stripling is 5-foot-11 and 218 pounds, is fast and plays especially well in pass coverage. At Robert E. Lee High in Tyler, Texas, Stripling led his team to a state championship, returning two interceptions for touchdowns in the playoffs. Despite missing a couple games this season with a leg injury, Stripling progressed steadily throughout 2005 and was often the fourth 'backer on the field when the Cougars went into their 3-4 formation.

Evans (6-1, 211) was a harder recruiting find than his classmates, playing at tiny Northwood High in north-central Louisiana. He was a do-everything force as a prepster, playing everything from quarterback, running back, receiver and safety. He also starred in basketball. With speed to burn, Evans proved to be instant impact on special teams coverage, and earned one early season nomination for Pac-10 special teams player of the week. As he secures more playing time on defense, look for him to become a pass-rushing force similar to sackmaster Bruce, who has taken on a big brother-type role with Evans.

Now it's on to the off-season -- the time of year where careers can truly be made. They'll live in the weight room this winter and then look to elevate their games to a higher level when the crucial spring practice season commences in March.

Based on the seeds planted in the fall, expect to see the FieldTurf at Martin Stadium popping up all over with flourishing blossoms.

Cory Evans, 38, and Eric Frampton stop USC's Lendale White.

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