Five questions heading into spring football

WSU Athletic Communications

WSU will open spring football on Thursday and the Cougars have plenty of questions to answer coming off the New Mexico Bowl.

The start of football season is still five months away, but Washington State will return to the practice field on Thursday for the start of spring football. In most cases, a team has a successful spring football session if it's able to complete all of the practices without suffering a significant injury. Do that anything else gained is icing on the cake. Coming off the New Mexico Bowl and needing to take another step forward this season, the Cougars have a little more to accomplish.

Some pieces are in place, but Washington State has a lot of work to do before next season and it begins this week. Here are a few questions I'd like to see answered during spring football.

No. 1 Who replaces Deone Bucannon?

One does not merely replace Deone Bucannon. With the first-team All-American headed to the NFL, WSU has a massive void to fill in the back end. That void is magnified when your realize how much inexperience will surround whoever takes over at strong safety

Sophomore Isaac Dotson will get the first crack at replacing Bucannon as he currently tops the depth chart. Dotson saw a few snaps last season, so he isn't completely green, but he's close. The situation gets dicier when you consider seven months ago Dotson was practicing with the quarterbacks. The move to defense has gone well thus far -- at least according to Mike Breske -- but the process is about to go into overdrive. Dotson needs reps and a lot of them.

Darius Lemora will begin spring football as the No. 2 free safety with David Bucannon third string. Lemora is an interesting prospect, who might remind you a little of a young Deone Bucannon. He's a long, rangy fluid athlete who hits bigger than his size thanks to solid technique. He's still a bit on the light side, listed at 187 pounds, but it wouldn't surprise me if he forced his way onto the field at some point this season.

Sorting out the entire secondary will be one of the more interesting aspects of spring. Great reports on Charleston White, Dotson, Lemora, Marcellus Pippins and others would be excellent. Negative reports may lead to excessive drinking and hoping teams magically choose not to throw against WSU next season.

No. 2 Can the defense avoid the lows of 2013?

If not for clock management issues in the bowl game and an absolute gift from Lane Kiffin, the offseason would have been filled with thousands of words questioning the security of Breske's job. After working something close to a minor miracle in 2012, Breske's unit had major issues last season. The Cougars ranked in the 100 range in a number of key defensive stats, including yards per play. WSU allowed 6.0 yards per play last season, 98th in the country and significantly worse than the 5.5 YPP WSU allowed in 2012. According to TeamRankings.com, the top 32 defenses allowed 5.0 YPP or better. The bigger issue was the ups-and-downs of the unit. They played well at times (USC, Arizona, Idaho) and horrendous at others (Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State).

Opponent WSU YPP Allowed Opponent YPP Season Average
Auburn 6.0 6.6
USC 3.0 5.8
Idaho 3.2 4.4
Stanford 8.2 6.2
California 6.2 4.9
Oregon State 7.3 5.9
Oregon 9.0 7.2
Arizona State 6.2 5.5
Arizona 4.7 5.6
Utah 5.9 5.0
Washington 5.3 6.0
Colorado State 6.0 6.1

Note: TeamRankings' stats do not include games against non-FBS teams so that is why Southern Utah isn't listed.

If WSU is going to win, it is going to do it with offense, but the defense has to at least give the offense a chance. It didn't against Oregon State, Oregon and Arizona State. A pair of redzone fumbles against Cal and two pick-6s against Utah kept the same from happening in those games. According to CFBstats.com, WSU allowed 4.7 YPP in wins and 7.0 YPP in losses. The Cougars need to get better on defense and will have to do so while losing two of their best players in Bucannon and Junior Gauta. Oh yeah, and replace both starting corners.

Hey coach, you're going to lose a few of your best players, replace them with young, inexperienced ones who probably haven't played a meaningful snap and we're going to need you to improve by 10 percent or so across the board.

Mike Breske has his work cut out for him.

No. 3 Can Tyler Bruggman play?

Let's forget the starting quarterback debate for a second. If Connor Halliday plays anywhere close to the level he played late in the season, he's going to be the starting quarterback, without question. Barring him getting the yips, or having his arm fall off, he's probably going to be the guy.

This spring isn't about Tyler Bruggman challenging Halliday as much as it's about Tyler Bruggman proving he's a legitimate FBS quarterback. Here is what we know about Bruggman:

  • He was a pretty good high school quarterback. Good enough to get a prestigious fourth star next to his name.
  • He fared well in Thursday Night Football scrimmages.
  • Mike Leach thought enough of him to offer him a scholarship.

That's really it. Bruggman was destined for a redshirt season last year, so while he got some reps during fall camp, he duties mostly consisted of running the scout team and quarterbacking the Thursday Night Football scrimmages. Now, he's thrust into the No. 2 job and will get meaningful reps with the first and second team. The transition from promising freshman quarterback on a redshirt to promising No. 2 quarterback isn't one a lot of quarterbacks make successfully. We're going to find out a lot about Bruggman during the next few weeks. Spring football won't make or break his WSU career, far from it, but it will give us an indication of whether he can be a legitimate quarterback next season.

The last thing anyone wants to see are a lot of 3-for-11 or 5-for-16 type stat lines. A quarterback controversy would be one of the best things to come out of spring because that means Bruggman might actually live up to the hype. We know Halliday can play at this level, now we start to find out whether Bruggman can.

No. 4 Who starts along the offensive line?

WSU improved significantly along the offensive line last year. Now, Clay McGuire has the task of getting even better play from the offensive line, while also ushering in three new starters. Barring injury, Joe Dahl and Gunnar Eklund are going to start on the left side. Roughly 10 players will compete for the other three spots. Sam Flor, Jacob Seydel and Cole Madison open spring on top of the depth chart. Riley Sorenson, Carlos Freeman, Devonte McClain, Eduardo Middleton, Cody O'Connell and B.J. Salmonson are among the other players competing for time. Of the nine players listed, only Sorenson and Middleton have any game experience and the experience they have is limited.

The scholarship numbers are finally healthy. Spring will help to determine whether WSU has a lot of live bodies or actual solid depth.

No. 5 Where is the pass rush?

In Breske's first year as defensive coordinator, the Cougars racked up 35.0 sacks, more than double the 17.0 they posted in 2011. Travis Long was a big part of that, but Breske was often able find success manufacturing a pass rush. The Cougars didn't have the same success last season, finishing with just 21.0 sacks. That number looks even worse when you consider 6.0 of the 21.0 came against Idaho and Southern Utah.

WSU will break in at least three new starters in the secondary and a decent pass rush would be a significant help to that process. One of the keys will be getting more from the BUCK linebacker spot. Long applied consistent pressure from that spot in 2012, but Kache Palacio and Destiny Vaeao were not able to do the same last year. They combined for 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Long finished 2012 with 8.5 sacks and 12 TFLs.

Ivan McLennan terrorized WSU's quarterbacks in spring football last season, before going on to redshirt. He's the No. 2 BUCK heading into spring this year. Maybe he will be the answer, maybe Palacio will improve. Either way, finding an improved and consistent pass rush is vital.

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