WSU Football: Linebacker Depth Is X-Factor for This Cougar Defense


October 27, 2012; Stanford, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal quarterback Josh Nunes (6) fumbles the ball while tackled by Washington State Cougars linebacker Darryl Monroe (13) during the third quarter at Stanford Stadium. Nunes recovered his fumble on the play. The Cardinal defeated the Cougars 24-17. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Working our way towards kickoff we’ve looked at most of the positions of depth for the Cougs, but the most important is one we haven’t talked about; the linebackers.

Washington State was so young in 2012 at the linebacker position due to the dismissal of two presumed starters there in the Spring. It was not a good situation going into the season but actually it turned out not to be the worst thing to happen to the defense over the course of the year (that honor went to the corners falling off the map as the year progressed). The linebacking corps was of course headed by BUCK Travis Long and freshman MIKE Darryl Monroe, while JC transfer Justin Sagote and junior Cyrus Coen emerged as the guys with the most playing time over the course of the year.

There was a lot of unsure play and at times complete breakdowns within the group, partially due to scheme change into the 3-4 by defensive coordinator Mike Breske, partially due to pure youth, but they played valiantly anyway. Coming off of a season ending injury the year before, Monroe emerged to lead the group with a solid 80 tackles (2nd on the team tied for 16th in the conference), 8.5 TFL, 3 sacks and a forced fumble. Even he was caught out of position repeatedly though and it cost the Cougs dearly in several games.

This season it’s going to be a different story in terms of cohesiveness and depth is going to play a big role in how good this team is. One thing looks certain, and that’s that the Cougs look much deeper this year than at any time in recent memory. Could be because the coaches are pushing guys onto the field and telling them they all have an opportunity to start or that they have tinkered with some spots, but either way it’s a good thing.

Long is of course no longer here, but Monroe returns as a 3rd year sophomore and has looked every bit an all-Pac-12 ready performer in both Spring and Fall camps. To replace Long, it was thought to be incoming junior Logan Mayes, JC transfer Ivan McLennan or budding soph. Kache Palacio but that has all changed. Mayes has been moved to a situational-specialist role to rush the passer from the DE and still listed D-lineman Destiny Vaeao has made the well publicized move to BUCK to help set the edge for the Wazzu defense.

Vaeao’s emergence and transition as a pass defender will go a long ways to how dangerous the Cougs can be up front from a “multiple” standpoint when he’s in the game. The key here is that Vaeao isn’t going to be in the game to rush the passer like Long was last season, but rather to slow down the running game of teams like Auburn, Oregon, Stanford, USC, Oregon State and others. But if he’s a liability in the pass game the Cougs might have to go back to the drawing board. So far this Fall coaches have used terms such as “freak athlete” to describe the kid and he seems to be picking up coverages well, so there’s a good vibe about the whole switch going into the season. Auburn will test that right away.

McLennan and Palacio should still see plenty of snaps out there as Vaeao is sure to wear down with his 6’4″, 290 lbs frame, and both can get after the quarterback as well with speed. I am interested in seeing how offensive tackles adjust on the edge over the course of a ball game with all three of these guys coming after their QB differently.

Meanwhile Cyrus Coen is still battling with senior Eric Oertel for the starting spot at SAM (both should play a bunch this year) while Justin Sagote and that beautiful flowing hair has again emerged as a good looking starter at the WILL. Sagote had moments of brilliance last season after coming in late to the program, but a year under his belt and an understanding of his teammates and scheme should make him a much better player where he got lost at times, in space.

That’s not all though, look for 3rd year soph. Tana Pritchard to see some significant time, along with 5th year senior Jared Byers. Each is fundamentally sound and Pritchard has the athletic potential to really breakout as a starter in 2014. Though the coaches want to get Peyton Pelluer on the field, it looks like he’ll be looking on from the sidelines, which isn’t a bad thing as he should redshirt and become a significant factor after that.

Two wildcards exist as well. One is junior Chester Su’a, who has had his share of issues and looks to fight his way back into the lineup at some point. Of course he ended his freshman season in the starting lineup flying around against the likes of Stanford and Washington but for whatever reason just hasn’t excelled since. The other is sophomore Jeremiah Allison, who has worlds of athletic potential but just maybe hasn’t shown enough so far in either camp to really push for playing time. Allison seems like a sure candidate to transfer after the season is over if he can’t find space but hopefully he gets some opportunities thrown his way this season.