Previewing the 2006 Cougar defense

PULLMAN -- Following a season where five of its seven losses came by four points or less, the 2006 Washington State Cougars are poised to turn those close losses into wins and return to the bowl scene. "We have to learn to finish," says WSU head coach Bill Doba. "We competed well last season, but we didn't win. It's a big step and I think our kids were not content just coming close."

After three consecutive 10-win seasons from 2001-03, WSU has missed the postseason two straight years, including a 2005 season where it posted a 4-7 record, 1-7 in conference action.

"I think Will Derting said it best last year when he said we took winning for granted and now we realize it takes a lot of hard work," Doba continued. "We had a good spring and need to stay healthy to have a successful season."

Doba enters his fourth year as WSU's head coach with a 19-16 record. The Cougar mentor has been a part of the coaching staff since 1989 and was named head coach at the conclusion of the 2002 season.

Doba and his staff, which returns virtually intact for a fourth straight season, will put a solid mix of veteran leadership and youthful energy on the field for the start of the season, with 49 returning lettermen, including 17 seniors. That mix includes nine true freshmen in 2005 that saw significant playing time.

Defensively, the Cougars return seven starters, including three of their front four. Leading the way is senior co-captain Mkristo Bruce, who has started each game the last two seasons. In 2005 the 6-foot-6, 260-pound defensive end racked up 10 sacks and 15 tackles-for-loss, both second among Pacific-10 Conference players. His efforts have been recognized by the national media as Bruce has been named to the Bronko Nagurski Trophy watch list, given annually to the best defensive player in the nation. Bruce was also named to the Lott Trophy and Ted Hendricks Award watch lists, along with being a Sporting News preseason All-American.

Over the last two seasons Bruce has registered 127 tackles and 16.5 sacks. A second-team, All-Pac-10 player last year, Bruce enters 2006 ninth on the Cougars' all-time sacks list and just one tackle-for-loss shy of the top 10 in WSU history.

On the other end of the line is junior Matt Mullennix (6-6, 255), who moves into the starting lineup for the first time. Last season Mullennix saw action in all 11 games, registering 12 tackles, including three sacks and four tackles-for-loss.

If there is a concern for Doba it is the depth at defensive end. Backing up Bruce and Mullennix are junior Lance Broadus (6-2, 226) and redshirt sophomore Mike Graise (6-3, 217). Both players saw the bulk of action last season on special teams, combining for nine total tackles, though their role will be expanded this season. Staying healthy will be a key for this unit.

At defensive tackle the Cougars return both starters from last season, redshirt junior Aaron Johnson (6-6, 303) and sophomore A'i Ahmu (6-1, 282). Also returning is junior Ropati Pitoitua (6-8, 288), who was the projected starter heading into last season before a broken leg sidelined him for the first five games of the 2005 campaign.

Johnson collected 19 tackles last season as he and Ahmu started all 11 games. Ahmu, a true freshman in 2005, registered 26 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, and .5 sacks as he was named to the Sporting News Freshman All-America third team. Pitoitua had 13 tackles and a sack in his six games played. CF.C editor's note: Two players, counted on to provide depth to the Cougar defensive line, DT Odell Howard and DE Paul Stevens, recently were suspended indefinitely from the team for undisclosed reasons according to multiple sources in Pullman.

At the linebacker position the Cougars have a great mix of talent, led by seniors Scott Davis (5-11, 236) and Steve Dildine (6-1, 235). Davis, one of four co-captains on this year's squad, is a three-year starter and a great leader for WSU. Last season he recorded 66 tackles, broke up six passes, and had five tackles-for-loss as he was an All-Pac-10 honorable mention pick.

The other outside linebacker position will be filled by Dildine, who started the final four games as a sophomore and all 11 last season. Dildine was third on the team in tackles last season with 68, including 37 solo.

Sophomore Greg Trent (5-10, 223) will begin the season as the starting middle linebacker for WSU. Trent, a true freshman in 2005, started five games last season when preseason All-American Will Derting suffered a knee injury. He finished second on the team in tackles with 69, 38 solo, along with three tackles-for-loss. Trent earned Sporting News Freshman All-America second teams honors following the season.

Senior Brian Hall (6-3, 236) and sophomores Cory Evans (6-1, 227) and Jason Stripling (5-11, 215) combined for 37 tackles last season and give WSU depth at the linebacker position.

In the Cougar secondary the key will be finding a cornerback. Senior Tyron Brackenridge (6-0, 188), who spent last season as a redshirt after a 2004 campaign where he played in nine games, secured one spot during spring ball. The other cornerback position will be won in fall camp, where senior Don Turner (5-11, 194) and sophomore Courtney Williams (6-1, 200) will battle with newcomers Markus Dawes (5-11, 190), Kerry Maddox (5-10,175) and Brian Williams (6-1, 175). CF.C editor's note: JC transfer B.T. Walker also could be in the mix if hurdles with his transcripts can be cleared

Turner saw action in all 11 games last season while backing up Wale Dada at right corner, making 25 tackles, including an interception against Oregon State. Williams saw the bulk of his time on special teams in 2005, where he earned the Cougar Assassin Award after a season where he made 12 tackles.

Dawes (College of the Sequoias) and Williams (Long Beach CC) arrive at WSU via the junior college route and both have two years to play, while Maddox is a freshman from Tyler, Texas.

At the safety position the Cougars are solid with the return of seniors Eric Frampton (6-0, 206) and DeWayne Patterson (6-0, 199), juniors Husain Abdullah (6-0, 191) and Christian Bass (6-2, 215), and sophomore Michael Willis (6-0, 213). Frampton started all 11 games last season and led WSU in tackles last season with 87 and also recorded a team-high eight pass break-ups.

Abdullah, who moved into the starting role last season, had 54 tackles in 2005 with a pair of interceptions. Patterson made two starts last season, his first in a Cougar uniform, and finished the season with 24 tackles. Bass saw most of his action on special teams in 2005 while Willis is a feared hitter who had a solid spring season.

COMING TOMORROW: Previewing the Cougar offense and special teams

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