Heading into last season defensive line was regarded as perhaps the strength of the WSU defense. And while it had its moments in the first half of the season, the unit wore down as the campaign dragged on, part of a unit that allowed 195 yards of rushing or more in four of the last five games. That included an inability to stop Bishop Sankey, who would end up rushing for 200 yards by himself, late in the Apple Cup.
The good news is that while a key player, Ioane Gauta, is gone to graduation, the depth could be as good as it's ever been at WSU, which means the Cougs aren't taking a lot of defensive linemen in this cycle. Let's take a look.
Note: We don't actually know who's on scholarship. This is our best guess.
Scholarship athletes: Moritz Christ (RJR), Xavier Cooper (RJR), Daniel Ekuale (RFR), Lyman Faoliu (SR), Darryl Paulo (RJR), Gerald Sterling (RFR), Emmitt Su'a-Kalio (RFR), Destiny Vaeao (JR), Robert Barber (RSO), Kalafitoni Pole (RSR), Austin Brown (RSO)
Projected depth chart
Tackle: Pole / Paulo
Nose Tackle: Cooper / Barber
End: Vaeao / Faoliu
The theme here, as it is across the front seven, is that there's a lot of returning talent. A huge thing to note when looking at the depth chart here is that a lot of these parts are interchangeable; we saw a lot of movement along the positions from each of these guys last year.
Perhaps nobody exemplifies that better than Vaeao, who began last season as the starting Buck linebacker but finished more or less playing end thanks to the emergence of Kache Palacio. Both Pole and Paulo saw time at nose tackle, too. It's flexible.
One thing that defensive coordinator Mike Breske has committed to from the very beginning is figuring out ways to get his most talented linemen on the field at the same time, so it stands to reason that the starting three will be Pole, Cooper and Vaeao. It's likely that Vaeao is the primary end (although I'd expect him to still see time at Buck in certain packages), but it's not difficult to see Pole and Cooper switching roles regularly.
The backups listed should get regular playing time in the rotation, as well. Barber found it difficult to break in behind Gauta last season, but he did see some meaningful snaps, and both Paulo and Faoliu saw their playing time increase as the season went on. Faoliu, in particular, could make some noise this year as a guy in that magical second year after a junior college transfer.
As for a younger guy who could push for important playing time? Keep an eye on Ekuale, who was a top 100 defensive tackle a year ago by Scout.com and rated the top prospect in American Samoa by 247sports.com. He held offers from Oregon, Washington and Oregon State.
Ngalu Tapa (6-3/275), Burbank, Calif.
Tapa is a consensus three-star prospect, but one writer in his area has said he's the most dominant defensive lineman he's seen in a talent-rich area of California. Yet, he wasn't even rated by the recruiting services when he accepted WSU's offer. That's because he had a little run-in with the law that now appears to be squarely behind him. Here's to guessing he'd have been a four-star recruit without that mishap; he's a powerfully disruptive force on the interior who projects to either tackle or nose tackle.
Jalen Canty (6-8/260), Vallejo, Calif.
Canty is a bit of a wild card here. A consensus three-star recruit, it's a bit uncertain as to where, exactly, he ends up. He's super athletic -- he'll also be playing basketball at WSU -- and it appears he's going to start out at defensive end. Could he grow into an offensive tackle? Possibly. But his potential is tantalizing.
It's unlikely either of these guys sees the field as a freshman, thanks to the fact that A) it's rare because of the strength required, and B) WSU has a lot of depth.
It's also worth noting that commits Kingston Fernandez and Hercules Mata'afa both are listed as defensive ends by the scouting services, but they appear to us to be Buck linebacker types. That's not to say they couldn't end up at defensive end, but for now, we'll throw them in with the linebackers.
Marcus Griffin (6-3/285), Bellevue, Wash.
A consensus three-star recruit who is rated as high as four stars (by Rivals), Griffin is a one-time verbal to the Cougs who decommitted. He's got offers from all over the country, and has narrowed his choices to Arizona, Mississippi State, California and WSU. Some believe WSU has moved on from Griffin, but it would be hard to see the Cougs turning him down if he decided to come to Pullman, which seems like a long shot at this point, anyway -- only 5 percent of voters in 247sports.com's most recent Crystal Ball thought he'd go Crimson.
All three starters possess all-conference talent. Cooper is going to be on some preseason all-conference teams, as he emerged as WSU best defensive lineman last season, while Pole has flashed the ability to be disruptive. The duo could be among the best interior combos in the Pac-12. And the coaching staff loves Vaeao's athleticism (as evidenced by the time that he spends at Buck while weighing 275 pounds).
Additionally, for the first time in years, there is some talented, mature depth behind the starters. The starters logged a heavy amount of snaps in 2013, something that was a point of pride for a while -- "superior conditioning" and all that -- but it clearly had a detrimental affect on their performance. There is now a legitimate two-deep that should allow Breske to rotate six guys if he so chooses without a lot of drop off.