Part two in a seven-part series previewing the Cougs' offensive and defensive units.
Saturday: Offensive Line
Today: Defensive Line
Wednesday: Running Backs
Let's rewind to the Pullman home opener in 2008. Sun in the sky; hope on the horizon as the Cougars host the California Golden Bears in an early Pac-10 Conference showdown. The Cougars' opening kickoff, a play that was cause for concern in the Bill Doba era, makes it safely to the end zone for a touchback. Cal takes over on their own 20 yard line. The fans are cheering. The Crimson and Gray are ready for their first defensive stand in Pullman. Their first defensive possession at home in the Paul Wulff era.
The ball is handed off to lightning fast Cal running back Jahvid Best. Gone. 80 yards. Touchdown.
Achilles, meet your heel.
A large part of WSU's historically bad 2008 was a historically bad 2008 rush defense. Washington State, in 13 games, gave up an average of 5.78 yards per rushing attempt. Good for 120th - and last - in the nation. The Cougs gave up a stunning fifty rushing touchdowns; thirteen more than the nearest challenger for defensive ineptitude. Teams pounded the ball against WSU last year, and they didn't stop. Look for a bright spot, and it's hard to find: the Cougars were 97th in sacks per game (still better than the Huskies at 99th!). 96th in tackles-for-loss per game. 117th in fumbles forced. And so on.
The defensive line was bruised, beaten, embarrassed, and left for dead.
Fortunately, there are reasons to be hopeful going into 2009.
Namely, the first and last games of 2008. Against a dominating Oklahoma State offensive line (one lined with NFL prospects and huge hosses from the Midwest), the then-healthy Cougar D-line only surrendered 4.1 yards per carry. An impressive stat in what is now a pretty good-looking 39-13 loss to the eventual #14-ranked team in the country. Then, of course, the last game, against the hated U-Dub. Now, the Cougars may have surrendered 224 yards to the hapless 0-12 Huskies, but they did it over a whopping 58 attempts - good for a 3.9 yard per carry rush defense. Tyrone Willingham's plan to pound the ball and run away with the Apple Cup failed. The D-line gave up only one rushing touchdown, and may very well have saved our season from being a complete abomination.
But enough about last year. Let's talk '09. And hope.
LE 93 ***  Kevin Kooyman (6-6, 246, Sr.)
50 [dnp] Adam Coerper (6-4, 250, #Fr.)
LT 90 *  Toby Turpin (6-4, 284, #Jr.)
92 [dnp] Dan Spitz (6-7, 260, #Fr.)
61 [dnp] Anthony Laurenzi (6-3, 290, #Fr.)
RT 95 [dnp] Bernard Wolfgramm (6-3, 288, #Jr.) or
94 [dnp] Josh Luapo (6-0, 321, #Jr.)
99 [dnp] Jessy Sanchez (6-2, 259, #Jr.) INJ
RE 98 * [dnp] Jesse Feagin (6-2, 266, #Sr.)
92 [dnp] Casey Hamlett (6-3, 239, Jr.)
Toby Turpin is going to be key stopping the interior run game; you know, the one that haunts us so much. However, I'm going with the senior leader, Kevin Kooyman. Kooyman has all the physical tools to go from good role player to impact player, and this is his last chance to make an impact at WSU. 2008 was the breakout year for the kid out of Maple Valley, with 31 total tackles and six starts. Now, the challenge for Kooyman, and the rest of the line, is to take all those gains from the weight room this off-season and turn them into gains on the field. One thing WSU desperately needs is an end that can break through the opposing line and put pressure on the quarterback, or earn tackles for loss. Kooyman is the most likely candidate for this given the lack of experience at the right end position. He's going to have to stay healthy, though - a common theme at just about every Cougar defensive position.
Biggest Question Mark
See all those [dnp]s above? Those, as you might be aware, stand for "did not play". So, among the entire defensive line depth chart, you have the following: 10 career starts, 2 players with any sort of game experience last fall and five varsity letters (three of which belong to Kooyman). That's inexperience. If Kooyman or Turpin get injured, who anchors that line? Are these young, inexperienced lineman good enough to stop the tidal wave of rushing attempts the Cougars are going to face? Do they have the talent to prevent a bad line from becoming worse?
Okay, that's a lot of question marks, when I promised you just one. To summarize: can the Cougars overcome their complete lack of experience on the defensive line?
Best Case Scenario
Fortunately, you, the loyal members of CougCenter, know that experience alone doesn't win ball games. If seasoned veterans were all you needed to have success in sports, then Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney would be powering the American League's best offense in Seattle. Luckily, talent and experience are two different things, and the Cougars may have more raw talent and depth in the line for 2009 than they did last fall. Bernard Wolfgramm is an exciting prospect at tackle, and he'll be battling it out with 321 (!) pound Josh Luapo. Best case scenario: the Cougar line shocks the world in 2009, holding the opposition to a much more average four yards per attempt. The D-line also cuts the number of rushing TDs in half, leading the Cougars to a couple upsets on the way to a five win season.
Worst Case Scenario
Week one against Stanford: Kooyman tears his ACL, MCL, PCL, and WWE trying to block the Cardinal line. Turpin suffers a similar fate, with a broken foot in the next game against Hawai'i. The patchwork D-line suffers just as much as last year, giving up big play after big play and 7 yards per carry. Opposing quarterbacks live the high life, with no one within fifty yards attempting to sack them. The Cougars head into the Apple Cup winless and embarrassed. Then, salt gets poured into the wound as the chop-blocking Huskies rout the Cougs 69-0 by injuring every other remaining player on the D-line. Paul Wulff has to put a jersey on and play right end so that the Cougs don't forfeit.
If the Cougs can stay relatively healthy - injuries are to be expected on any unit on any team of football players - they have a good shot of keeping teams to about 4.5 yards per carry. Not deserving of any major awards, certainly, but enough to keep WSU from being embarrassed and take pressure off of the linebackers and secondary. Sure, the Jahvid Bests of the world will steamroll the Cougar D, but teams with less potent rushing attacks struggle and the Cougs stay more competitive. The younger players suffer at times, but guys like Adam Coerper and Dan Spitz show some glimmer of hope for the 2010 season and beyond. The Cougars' D-line improves from last season, but not enough to strike fear in the hearts of opposing quarterbacks.