After years of getting run over and pancaked, the Washington State defensive line took a step forward last season. While they were still a ways off from being a dominant unit, the group was considerably better than in the previous few seasons.
A big reason for that improvement was the arrival of Ioane Gauta who signed in the 2012 recruiting class. Gauta will be back next season and with five current verbal commitments in the fold, the Cougars could get another boost to the defensive line.
Ioane Gauta (SR)
Gauta was a major contributor last season, proving to be a force against the run at various points throughout the season. Consistency was an issue at times, but he still showed very well for his first season of major college football. If Gauta can improve on his 2012 season he should anchor WSU's defensive line next season.
Toni Pole (RSJR)
Pole's interception in the Apple Cup was the highlight of his season, but like Gauta, he also played very well at points throughout the season. Pole is a bit of a tweener and may not be a natural fit at nose tackle, but when he and Gauta were on the field together, the Cougar run defense was at its best.
Matthew Bock (RSSR)
Bock wen't from being a walk-on and mostly special teams player under the previous coaching staff to a starting defensive end last season. Now going into his senior season, Bock is likely to be in the mix again this season as either a starter or rotational player.
Xavier Cooper (RSSO)
After getting past an academic hurdle during his redshirt season, Cooper proved he could play at this level last year. At times, he was an absolute force. Cooper flashed the kind of potential that could make him an All-Pac-12 type of player, but he still has work to do to get there. Barring some unforeseen circumstances, I would expect Cooper to lock down one of the starting defensive end spots.
Robert Barber (RSFR)
Barber missed all of last season after suffering an apparent knee injury during fall camp. He's a big body and should be in the mix at defensive end this season. By that, of course, I mean he will win the first of his four Heisman Trophies this year.
David Davis (RSSO)
Davis did not play much, if at all last season in his redshirt freshman campaign. Another year in the system should help and we will see where he lands in spring football.
Austin Brown (RSFR)
Brown was a late addition to Mike Leach's first signing class and redshirted during his freshman season. Like Davis and some of the other unproven players, spring football and fall camp will go a long way in determining his role on the depth chart.
Darryl Paulo (RSSO)
See Davis, David.
Justin Clayton (RSSR)
Clayton enters his senior season, but was not much of a factor last season. He played defensive tackle in the old 4-3 scheme, but doesn't have the size to play nose tackle in the 3-4. We'll see if he can work his way into the two-deep this season.
Destiny Vaeao (SO)
Vaeao was the other member of the 2012 signing class from the American Samoa, but unlike Barber, Vaeao saw significant time as a freshman. He was in the rotation at defensive end and showed bursts in the run game. Hopefully he can build off that season and grow into a bigger role this season.
Gerald Sterling (3-star)
Sterling is a bit light for defensive tackle as he's listed at 275 pounds, but what he lacks in weight he makes up in athleticism. He played tight end in high school and appears to be fairly nimble for his size. While he played defensive tackle in high school, a position switch may be in order unless he gains some considerable weight. A redshirt season and a year in the weight room is the likely course.
Kyle's take: Sterling is being listed as a DT, but I'm not so sure. I think they move him to end where he can be the big guy on the outside that the 3-4 requires. He played TE (and FB!) in high school, so he's pretty athletic for a big man. Prime candidate for a redshirt, and I think he could be a nice player in a few years. He went to the same high school that Walter Jones went to, so obviously we're lookin' at a first ballot Hall of Famer.
Daniel Ekuale (3-star)
Ekuale is one of two defensive line commits from the American Samoa. As such, there isn't much information or video available of Ekuale. What we do know is that he has good size at 6'4 290 pounds and had interest from several other Pac-12 schools. He could be in line to redshirt, but it's hard to know until fall camp begins.
Emmitt Su'a-Kalio (2-star)
Like Ekuale, Su'a-Kalio is also from the America Samoa. While Ekuale likely figures to play on the inside, Su'a-Kalio will come to WSU at defensive end. Again, it's tough to know much about him as a player as video and information are limited, but he drew late interest from Wisconsin which on the surface would be a good sign.
Paulo Lepua (3-star)
Lepua will come to WSU with an impressive offer sheet. He finished his senior season with 26 sacks and is the No. 41 rated defensive end according to Scout.com. The Cougars appear to have a few run stuffing defensive end types, but are lacking pass rushing defensive ends. If Lepua proves he can fill that role, he could play early and play quite a bit.
Kyle's take: Lepua is a guy who played mainly DT in high school, but many think he's destined for the edge in college. I'm not sure I'd move him, as a pass rushing interior lineman is pretty rare. He's only 265 now, but redshirt him and introduce him to a college conditioning program, and he could be in the 290s fairly easily. He's really quick for a guy his size, and while he can probably improve on his gap control and run stuffing abilities, he has great pass rushing instincts.
Lyman Faoliu (3-star)
The lone junior college player of the defensive line commits, Faoliu is already enrolled in school and will have the benefit of going through spring football. Faoliu projects as a defensive end, but isn't all that small at 275 pounds. Junior college players are often brought in to fill an immediate void and as a result it wouldn't be a major surprise to see Faoliu play next season.
Kyle's take: Faoliu is a JC transfer with 3 to play 2, but I don't see him taking that redshirt year. He should come in and help in the trenches right away. He is more of a DE than a DT, but I'm sure he could slide inside on passing downs if need be. Mike Breske likes to rotate his big men up front, so while I don't think he starts, he'll still see a good chunk of playing time.
With the players currently on the roster and the five already committed, WSU has a solid number of bodies along the defensive line. As a result, they are probably set along the line unless something unexpected happens. With Joe Salave'a having such a strong presence in the American Samoa, it wouldn't ever shock me to see WSU land a previously unknown player.
Zelt Minor, DT, Houston, TX
He's currently an SMU verbal commit, so if we get him, I'm pretty sure June Jones is taking Mike Leach off of the Christmas Card mailing list. He's 6'3/260, so his frame suggests he can add more weight. DTs in this defense should be pushing 300 lbs, while Ends should be around 275 or so. I think he stays committed to SMU, but it wouldn't shock me if he flipped at the last second. Texas Tech is also trying to make a late push.
Like the offensive line the WSU defensive line is projected to have more depth in 2013 than it has in a very long time. Gauta and Cooper are both likely to lock down starting spots and should be at least league average next season. Pole, Bock and Vaeao give the Cougars five players who have game experience in this system.
In order to take the next step and become an average or better unit, the Cougars will need a couple of current unknowns or incoming players to make an impact. Unlike last season, WSU isn't likely going to rely on any of the newcomers to step into a starting role but if one or two can contribute the Cougars could be in good shape along the defensive line next season.