Mike Breske came to WSU with a stellar reputation as a defensive coordinator. Mike Leach wanted someone to coach the that side of the ball who would be aggressive, and Breske did not disappoint: His 3-4 scheme helped to generate more tackles for loss than WSU has seen in some time.
A key part of that scheme -- which relies to a large degree on controlled pressure, where confusion is more important than the sheer number of blitzers -- is the Buck linebacker.
As a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker, a player in the Buck position has to be able to rush the passer and drop into coverage with equal relative ease. Breske will move him all over the formation to grab any tactical advantage possible; there were times last season when Travis Long lined up where the middle linebacker would traditionally line up.
But Long and his 8.5 sacks are gone, which leaves a huge question mark. Here's how the depth chart stood at the beginning of spring:
Mayes is the natural choice to take over for Long at Buck. He had an excellent Apple Cup in Long's absence -- while Toni Pole gets all the press for his rumble toward the goal line in overtime, it was Mayes who nearly sacked Keith Price to force the rash decision that led to the interception -- and was Long's primary backup all season.
The knock on Mayes, though, has always been relative lack of size. He came to WSU as a three-star recruit, and while the plan was to redshirt him -- he weighed less than 220 pounds -- Mayes forced his way into the lineup as a 4-3 defensive end in Paul Wulff's final season. He was largely ineffective in spot duty as a pass rushing specialist, registering just a single sack and one tackle of any kind.
Now a junior and up over 240 pounds, this is supposed to be Mayes' year to shine -- to show that he can be an every down player. But there's a potential road block: He's missed all of spring practices with what appears to be a leg injury. (We, of course, can never be sure since Leach doesn't talk about injuries. Ever. Everybody's happy and healthy!) It's unknown if it's going to linger into the fall.
If it does, that leaves a pretty enormous question mark with a slew of inexperienced players vying for time.
In terms of spring reps, Palacio and McLennan have been getting the majority at the position. Palacio was listed behind Mayes on the spring depth chart before practices started, which is probably fitting because he profiles a lot like Mayes did as a freshman. He was a three-star recruit out of California listed as an outside linebacker. He also played a bit as a true freshman, despite weighing only 212 pounds, mostly in special teams situations. He did have half of a sack.
McLennan is a junior college transfer who joined WSU for spring semester. He was sought after by a number of high-profile schools, holding offers from Oregon, Arkansas and Miami (FL), among others. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean you should expect huge things from McLennan; we learned from Brandon Rankin that being wanted by a big-time school doesn't mean you dominate when you get to Pullman.
But, it certainly doesn't hurt that McLennan has physical tools that other schools coveted. At 6-4 and 238 pounds, he's closer in size to Long than Palacio, so theoretically he should be stronger against the run. But it seems he was a bit lost at times this spring in Breske's scheme, and ultimately has lagged behind Palacio.
As for the others listed on the depth chart? Paulo is now a nose tackle (a move that likely was as much about necessity as fit, thanks to injuries to Ioane Gauta and Toni Pole, so it's possible he might end up somewhere else in the fall), and Hersey just hasn't gotten that many reps.
Assuming Mayes is healthy, one of these guys is going to end up in the regular rotation behind him. Watch them both in today's spring game for a clue as to which one it will be.