Sizing Up the 'Backers

PULLMAN -- While national attention continues to pour over the 2002 Cougars, the crimson faithful will tell you that they're keeping their heads from swelling by asking one question: What about the linebacking situation?

So let's talk about it. Raonall Smith and James Price are gone and only one guy who truly has been battle tested in the Pac-10, junior Al Genatone, is back.

No doubt, the Cougars are looking less than robust at 'backer.

But before visions of Onterrio Smith running roughshod through the middle start to ruin your sleep, consider the agility of the guys who defensive coordinator Bill Doba will be lining up at 'backer. If they had a theme song, The Boss would be blaring loud and clear: "Baby we were born to run."

Also consider the fact they will have two games against heavily under-manned opponents to get their bearings before traveling to Ohio State. And finally, don't forget that they'll be aided in a huge by a defensive line that just may be the finest in WSU history.

Genatone will be at weakside and former safety Ira Davis, now up to 215 pounds, will be on the strong side. Both saw considerable action in 2001, with Genatone starting part-time and winning the UCLA game with his long-distance fumble return to paydirt. Genatone runs well and Davis, a big-time hitter with great wheels, is always around the ball.

The middle is shaping up as a dog-fight between true sophomore Pat Bennett (6-0, 225), who also played a year ago, and touted JC transfer Kevin Sperry (6-2, 220). Bennett is a gamer with great upside. And Sperry, from L.A. Harbor College, appears to have all the tools to make an instant impact. He runs the 40 in 4.6 seconds and is very agile going from sideline-to-sideline. He turned down USC to cast his lot with WSU.

OK, so the starters look pretty decent. But who's backing them up?

That's where things look a whole lot brighter today than they did the day after the Sun Bowl.

How so?

Two names -- JC transfer Don Jackson (6-1, 225), who likely will push for time on the weakside, and New Mexico State transfer Mawuli Davis (5-11, 242), a hard-nosed throwback from Oakland whom many think could prove to be one big surprise this season either in the middle or on the outside.

Jackson, a third-team JC Gridwire third-team All-America pick in 2001, ran the 40 in 4.5 seconds on Tuesday. And down in Las Cruces they're still taking about the spring game in 2000 when Davis' fancy footwork provided the margin of victory for the crimson side of the Aggies squad with a sack and 30-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

DON'T FORGET Will Derting, a strongside 'backer who played last year as a true freshman in the season's first two games before blowing a knee. He missed spring workouts and isn't quite 100 percent, but he has the talent and mentality to someday dominate in the Pac-10.

Farther down the depth chart are another pair of swifties: former defensive backs Derrick Dillon and Wes Patterson-Aumus, plus fleet-footed true freshmen Scott Davis of Kennewick and Brian Hall of Walla Walla. And, of course, there's Doc Farley, the Montana marauder, who has developed a cult-like following on the CF.C message board.

Doba told CF.C earlier this year that he likes his linebackers because they have lots of upside. Further, he says, great defenses are built around cornerbacks and linemen, not linebackers. And the 2002 Cougars are downright loaded at the corners and in the trenches.

He isn't about to predict a repeat of 2001, when his stop-troops led the Pac-10 in sacks, turnovers and third-down-conversion ratio, and managed to place fourth in both points allowed and total defense. But he's not about to concede anything either. Speed can kill, he says, and his linebackers know how to run.

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