SPRING: Cougs at DE should be much improved

COUGAR FANS LOOKING for reasons why the defensive ends will be much improved in 2010 won't have to look very hard this spring. The d-line's top tackler returns and his best football is ahead of him. A projected senior starter is back after missing all of last season, too. Plus, WSU has a number of d-ends who Paul Wulff says have potential star power written all over them. And that's not all..

The Cougar defensive ends this spring won't be hard to find -- gone are the days when WSU went undersized out on the edge. The Wazzu DEs this spring are more apt to check in around 255-265 pounds, or more. (WSU has not released an updated spring roster with current weights, or a depth chart, but it is expected to be put out soon.)

Travis Long led the entire defensive line last season -- -- as a true freshman -- with 47 tackles and 6.5 for loss. In going straight from high school to Pac-10 starter, Long was expected to surely take some lumps last year, and he did. But not nearly as many as were forecast before the season.

As has often been written on these pages ever since he pledged crimson, Long has a chance to be special over his Cougar career. Last year's performance at such an early stage only bolsters that projection. You simply do not see players his size who can move like he can, both in and out of space.

The other DE starter headed into the spring is Kevin Kooyman, who sat out last season after injuring his knee in the opener. Kooyman has shown promise ever since his true freshman season but injuries have slowed him down over his career. As a fifth year senior, he has one last go-round to make his mark. He has both the ability to prevent ballcarriers from gaining the corner, and to get to the QB.

CO-DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Chris Ball in the past has insisted every starting job is up for grabs headed into the spring. And he should -- it breeds better competition, and coming off a year like 2009 the Cougs need to get better everywhere. But at d-end, Long has as tight a lock on a starting job as one can.

Kooyman on the other hand, unless something changes, will face a stiff challenge this spring and likely over the course of the year. Physically, Kooyman is ridiculous. He works hard and does everything asked of him. But at WSU he's been like a motorcycle throttle that's revving, but has never fully been opened up.

He showed some flashes his freshman year, but hasn't ever really let it go, not consistently anyway. If he does so this season, look out. If not, there are others who could leapfrog him on the depth chart.

BECAUSE THAT GROUP holds a number of players Paul Wulff has said he thinks will become very good. Redshirt frosh Sekope Kaufusi is one of them. Much like Long, he has a chance to be special.

When Kaufusi was at linebacker on the scout team last year running against the 1s, and guards and linebackers would head into Level 2 off Todd Sturdy's zone blocking scheme, Kaufusi won the battle on a number of occasions.

Athletically, Kaufusi is freakish. And many have long thought DE will be Kaufusi's best position rather than LB. He got a head start there last year due to injuries on the edge --midway through season he began filling in at DE, and then went back and forth between the positions the rest of the year.

At DE, he showed solid hand fighting skills, and his ability to shed blockers is advanced. Although he came to WSU at 6-3, 229 pounds last August, he'd never been in a weight program until he got to WSU. And Kaufusi's greatest attribute this season might be his speed-to-size combination. He can chase down ballcarriers from the backside and his lateral quickness is impressive. And when he hits people, he blows them up.

He's young and he's going to be playing with his hand down all the time, for the first time. He isn't as polished as he will be in coming years and he'll make some young mistakes this year. But he's also going to turn in some of those 'Did you see that?!' plays.

Brandon Rankin would normally have been the first DE mentioned among the others looking to claim starting jobs but Wulff has said he might move inside to d-tackle -- the spring session could well decide that. When the new roster weights come out, his will be the one many fans will look up first for clues. CF.C will have more on him in the DT preview but two items to mention now.

Rankin was simply dominant in junior college, named All-America and piling up 24 sacks his sophomore year, though he is one year removed from that season. Secondly, the player Rankin reminds Wulff of most? Dorian Boose.

REDSHIRTING THIS PAST season was Jordan Pu'u Robinson. Pu'u Robinson has the physical and athletic tools, but will need experience and seasoning.

And then there's Casey Hamlett. He walked on last year and proceeded to earn eight starts. Was he that good or were WSU that down last year? Maybe some of both, particularly given the injuries, but more on the side that Hamlett was good -- he got into the backfield more consistently than any other DE last year apart from Long.

Adam Coerper and Jessy Sanchez are also in the mix but come into the spring behind others on the depth chart. When WSU has had their best years on the d-line, they've had a solid rotation of guys who can step in without much fall off. If Coerper, who will be a third year sophomore and Sanchez, a fifth year senior, can have a corner-turning spring, that helps WSU all the more.

IN THE 2009 spring and fall camps, the Cougar ends started to take the first steps towards being more physical against the run. But it was a process and injuries and attrition, like losing Cory Mackay and Kevin Kooyman, hurt their cause. And what's really astounding is the Cougars started four d-linemen last season who took their first snaps against Pac-10 competition.

With those growing pains came experience. Add in the fact the Cougs have a couple potential stars this year they didn't have last year, along with others who can make an impact, and it should provide for a significantly improved year at d-end in 2010.

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