Before getting to the actual topic, a bit of Ryan Leaf news. Leaf was arraigned on Tuesday and entered a guilty plea as part of a plea deal in Montana. The deal comes with a recommended five-year commitment to the Montana Department of Corrections and time in drug rehabilitation -- the nine months in rehab and six in a pre-release center would count towards his sentence. However, the sentence is up to the judge's discretion, and will be determined on June 19. Leaf will also have to face charges in Texas once the whole Montana thing is cleared up. All this comes from Kimball Bennion of the Great Falls Tribune.
Edited to reflect he may avoid jail time if he fulfills the terms of the sentence, including rehab. Full story here.
Now for the actual news: On a Pac-12 conference call on Tuesday, Mike Breske filled in for Mike Leach, and had a few thoughts on the defense. The biggest revelation, if you can call it that, was Breske's assertion that the linebackers will be the strength of his defense this year. It was a statement that raised some eyebrows and also caused a moment of panic in some.
Speaking of eyebrows up:
WSU DC Mike Breske: "Our LB corps is going to be the strength of our defense." Interesting. That wouldn't have been my guess.— ESPN_Pac12blog (@ESPN_Pac12blog) May 8, 2012
Breske is right, and not just because he's the coach and knows his personnel. There's no reason to panic about the linebackers, perhaps, being the best unit on the defensive side of the ball for a few reasons.
Walk with me.
You've probably heard the term "system quarterback" at some point. If you haven't, it's a somewhat derogatory label placed upon signal-callers who put up gaudy stats in a pass-happy offense. Many are labeled as "system quarterbacks" as a way to talk down upon their true skills. Those skills will never transfer to the next level, some say, because they're a product of the system.
No matter the cause, though, these quarterbacks put up huge numbers and are wildly successful in college. You'll hear "system quarterback" a lot for as long as Mike Leach is here; his is the model of a system the critics are speaking about.
We can take that term and apply it to Mike Breske's defense -- "system linebackers," if you will. You see, the linebackers will always be in a position to make plays because of the system. They're what makes everything go. And they don't necessarily have to be all-world to be the strength of the defense -- it's inherent because of Breske's philosophy.
Broken down to its most simple level, the defensive philosophy is as such: The linemen fill space and control gaps, occupying blockers; the secondary is essentially on an island, with one in the box and the rest matched up; the linebackers, at the second level, are the key cog. It's the linebackers that will be flying around and making plays, stepping into the holes created by the linemen occupying blockers. Because of the odd-man front, the linebackers will also blitz -- on almost every play, in fact.
So you have one level -- the linemen -- eating space and another -- the secondary -- covering the back-end and keeping things in front of them while also attempting to force turnovers. And in between is the level that is responsible for making plays -- both in the run game and pass. The linebackers will blitz to pressure the quarterback and step up to stop the run. It's all on them.
And because of their role, the bodies that occupy these four positions don't matter as much as you think. The common question is "But we're replacing C.J. Mizell, Alex Hoffman-Ellis and Sekope Kaufusi: How can these guys fill the void?" Simply, it doesn't matter as much as you think -- the system accounts for a lot here.
That's not to say the linebackers aren't solid. The front-line has a ton of potential, even if it lacks experience. Darryl Monroe looks the part, and performed well in the spring when healthy. Chester Su'a is a man, and looks to be the best of the three "traditional" linebackers. Travis Long and Logan Mayes are adjusting to their roles as Buck linebackers, and possess plenty of athleticism, as well as the ability to get after the quarterback. And Eric Oertel's emergence was the surprise of the spring.
But it's the way Breske's system is structured that makes the linebackers the strength, overall. Call it a default choice, perhaps. Everything is geared towards the play of the linebackers, and they'll be put in a position to make an immediate impact. Add in the fact that he has a capable first-team at the moment, and it's easy to see why he singled them out on Tuesday.