IN THE COUGAR SECONDARY, three of four starters return in '08. All the starting linebackers, plus Jason Stripling, are expected back. Aside from who the coordinator will be in place of Bill Doba, the most pressing question on defense next season is up front. And the answer -- on paper, anyway -- could be worrisome.

Still, there exists reason for optimism as you look to the 2008 Washington State defense, and much of that stems from the secondary and linebackers.

Returning starters: CB Devin Giles, CB Chima Nwachukwu, S Alfonso Jackson*, (S Xavier Hicks)
Starters graduating: FS Husain Abdullah
Ready to emerge?: Eric Block, Deon Ford, Tyron Justin, Romeo Pellum

At safety, starter Alfonso Jackson returns, as does Xavier Hicks, who made a splash-and-a-half when subbing in this season. Hicks had three official starts but in effect, played starter's minutes in five. Both might be best suited to the strong safety position, though Hicks was listed on the depth chart as the No. 2 free safety behind the graduating Husain Abdullah most of this past season.

Cornerbacks Chima Nwachukwu and Devin Giles, a sophomore and junior-to-be, respectively, experienced trial by fire early this season but improved immensely down the stretch. It would be unfair to expect either to be a lockdown corner coming out of the gate next fall, but it also would not be inaccurate to say they're on the right path. Key contributor CB Ryan Kensok will be lost to graduation.

Returning starters: LB Kendrick Dunn, LB Cory Evans, LB Andy Mattingly, LB Greg Trent
Starters graduating: None
Ready to emerge?: Hallston Higgins, Marshal Pirtz

At linebacker, the Cougs should be sitting pretty. Two honorable mention All-Pac-10 performers -- Andy Mattingly and Greg Trent -- are back, along with seasoned hands Cory Evans and Kendrick Dunn. All four of them placed in WSU's top five in tackles this season along behind Abdullah.

In addition, Jason Stripling, perhaps the best outside 'backer in the bunch coming into 2007, is expected to return in '08. The hard hitting Texan practiced with the team but sat out the season to get his academic house in order.

The 3-4 flex alignment the Cougs played fairly effectively during the bulk of the season took advantage of all the linebacking depth. Whether the 3-4 remains in place with a new coaching staff remains to be seen.

But one thing is certain. Besides the veteran depth at 'backer, the Cougs will have some promising youngsters there as well in Hallston Higgins and Marshall Pirtz. Alex Hamill, who was shaping up nicely in August workouts before his season was undone by injury, told CF.C he will graduate this spring and forego his final year of eligibility.

THE DEFENSIVE LINE is where the worry beads may come into play next season.

Returning starters: DT Fevaea'i Ahmu
Starters graduating: DT Ropati Pitoitua, DE Matt Mullennix, DE Lance Broadus (from WSU's base 4-3)
Ready to emerge?: DT Matt Eichelberger, DT B.J. Guerra, DT Toby Turpin, DE Jesse Feagin, DE Mike Graise, DE Asly Jean-Jacques

Only A HREF=//washingtonstate.scout.com/a.z?s=137&p=8&c=1&nid=2999100>Fevaea'i Ahmu returns from a group that was inconsistent getting a push this season and played a major role in WSU's woeful 50 percent success rate stopping opponents on third-down plays. Senior-to-be Matt Eichelberger is expected to be the frontrunner for the open DT spot opened by the departure of Pitoitua. Third-year sophomoreToby Turpin could also make a run.

Depth will be a major concern, perhaps pointing to a recruiting class heavy on JC defensive linemen.

Meanwhile, at defensive end, Mike Graise, a sometimes starter, and Kevin Kooyman look to lead the pack. Jesse Feagin is also someone worth keeping an eye on. Mattingly was mentioned by Doba as a potential DE starter next season, but whether a new coach has the same idea remains to be seen.

Bottom line up front: Ahmu is capable of being a beast in the trenches but he likely would need a Jeremey Williams/Rien Long-type off his shoulder in order to have a monster season. It's not sizing up that way right now.

Coming Monday: The rundown on the offense and special teams.

The Cougar Nation hopes to see Greg Trent repeat this scene in '08, as Washington State will be looking to make it four wins in the last five years over Washington in next year's Apple Cup.

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