Aug 30, 2012; Provo, UT, USA; Washington State Cougars nose tackle Kalafitoni Pole (98) sits on the sidelines during the third quarter against the Brigham Young Cougars at Lavell Edwards Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
The Wazzu defensive line was in majority undersized and severely out-manned in 2012, there’s no way around it. Playing in the 3-4, that’s a terrible combination for a defense to try and overcome. A year later, things have changed drastically. So drastically in fact that by the end of this piece you may wonder if I just listed every defensive lineman we have just to list them. Not the case, but I truly believe that the DL is the second deepest position on the team, behind the receivers.
The line has bulked up and the coaches have changed their approach a little bit this offseason, adding a 4th “lineman” to the mix by putting 290 pound freak athlete Destiny Vaeao in the BUCK position. The added bulk (about 40-50 lbs worth) on the sophomore compared to the versatile Travis Long last season should help set the edge and give major support in the run game. At least that’s what the coaches are counting on. There are possible side effects to that move but we’ll talk more on that when we address the linebackers.
There are others beside Vaeao, that will make this Cougar starting line “one of the biggest in the history of the Pac-12″, as redshirt sophomore Xavier Cooper emphatically stated earlier in camp. Cooper on the right end stands at 6’4″, 303 lbs and is just primed for a breakout season, senior Ioane Gauta is a solid 6’3″, 285, actually down several pounds from last season and redshirt junior Kalafitoni Pole is the final piece at 6’1″, 302.
Both Gauta and Pole are listed as and play the nose tackle position (nose to nose with the center), but the combo of both in at the same time was a surprisingly effective find in the late stages of last season when both were finally healthy. Those two combined to make huge plays late in the Apple Cup that were instrumental in the win. Pole running down the middle of the field after his one-handed pick and Gauta leading the way to his almost game winner in OT will be etched in Cougar glory forever.
But that’s just the starters and with that increase in size comes the challenge of keeping them fresh enough to make plays.
Cue the depth.
Tough to tell who the next guy into the rotation is on the end, but both junior Logan Mayes and fifth year senior Matthew Bock will get their turns and they’ll need to produce. The size dropoff is significant, with Bock going 270 lbs and Mayes more linebacker sized at only 245 (remember Mayes played a combination of BUCK and DE last season, also the player that wrapped up Husky quarterback Keith Price to create that Pole interception).
In the middle, big redshirt freshman Robert Barber should get some significant plays in. With both of the other nose tackles starting (Pole on the end but moving inside from time to time), there’s just no way they’ll both be able to man the interior for an entire game. Barber brings major size into the mix with his 6’3″, 297 lbs frame, so the Cougs won’t drop off in that regard but they’ll obviously sacrifice some experience and quickness.
That puts the Cougs at 6 to 7 deep on the defensive line, which is right about where you need to be all season long in a 3-4 scheme, but wait, there’s more! It’s really tough to see the Cougs not getting the size of redshirt soph. Moritz Christ (6’5″, 312) and the explosion of third year soph. Darryl Paulo (6’3″, 262) and JC transfer Lyman Faoliu (6’3”, 267) involved somewhere throughout the length of the season. Christ is still learning the defensive side after being brought in on the offensive side and Paulo in particular had a terrific Spring. If you consider that both Gauta and Pole may need to be replaced in the bigger 4-down look, Paulo jumps out as another necessary piece of the interior.
While you hope injuries aren’t a problem, they are all too often a large part of the inside game and those three players will probably be instrumental as fill ins for the inevitable. Like I said, you gotta be 6 to 7 deep all season long (Paulo makes it 7 to 8 deep), a major crutch for WSU recently. Gauta, Pole and recently Mayes have all suffered from various injuries that make it necessary to be able to replace them at any point in time. Make no mistake, there will be drop-off, but not nearly the kind that would have doomed the Cougs in the past.
Beyond that the coaching staff is really excited about the freshmen quartet of Daniel Ekuale, Gerald Sterling, Emmitt Su’a-Kalio and Paulo Lepua. I really thought Lepua had a good shot of seeing the field this season but he’s been on the bikes for the entirety of Fall camp so far, for a presumed injury (although coach Leach would likely have us believe he is training for some sort of marathon… he doesn’t talk about injuries). So now I find it really difficult to see any of these guys not putting on a redshirt this season.
There are others on the backend of this group, but those that I mentioned are all of the players that I see playing a major role over the next several seasons. Many of them are still freshmen or sophomores, so there are some youth issues to overcome, but the bulk and depth are undeniably improved over previous seasons. Here’s to finding a whole lot of “right combinations” in 2013!