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2011 WSU DEPTH CHART: C.J. Mizell Leads LB Corps Loaded With Young Talent

C.J. Mizell can be vicious. But he also can be a knucklehead. Will he have his act together enough to make a significant impact on the field this fall for Washington State? Cougar fans sure hope so.
C.J. Mizell can be vicious. But he also can be a knucklehead. Will he have his act together enough to make a significant impact on the field this fall for Washington State? Cougar fans sure hope so.

This continues our series of semi-informed WSU football depth chart speculation in which we take a stab at what each position will look like when the Cougars kick off against Idaho State on Sept. 3. You'll note, at times, that it will look a little different than the post-spring practice depth chart -- we're going to incorporate incoming freshmen and also try to guess what's going to play out in August during training camp. Previous: QBs, DBs, RBs.

In a team filled with weak units, there perhaps was no weaker unit in 2010 than the linebackers. It wasn't supposed to be that way -- not with a senior and two juniors making up the starters out of the gate. But by the time Oregon came to town in October, it was clear those three weren't going to be able to get it done.

The most damning evidence, of course, came against UCLA when the Cougars were in position to win their first Pac-10 game since the 2008 Apple Cup, only to be completely unable to tackle any ball carrier in the fourth quarter. The Bruins rushed for a mind-boggling 437 yards -- a week after USC ran for 285.

While the line generally gets the bulk of the blame (and it's true the line wasn't great), a close analysis of the linebackers revealed that they shouldered the majority of the blame for those obscene rushing totals. Something had to change.

It did: Facing one of the most fearsome rushing attacks in the country, freshmen C.J. Mizell and Sekope Kaufusi saw loads of time against the Ducks, and they more than held their own. The final number against Oregon again wasn't great -- 252 yards -- but a lot of that was piled up in the fourth quarter, and it was obvious to the naked eye that those two were bringing a different level of athleticism and ability to the position. Mizell led the team with 12 tackles.

Of course, Mizell wasn't exactly the model of consistency down the stretch, having been suspended against Arizona, suffering an injury against Washington, and finally being dropped to second string coming out of spring practices.

Add to that mix a quintet of highly touted freshman and there are as many questions as there is promise.

Starter Alex Hoffman-Ellis, Sr.* C.J. Mizell, So. Sekope Kaufusi, So.*
Backup Darren Markle, So.* Mike Ledgerwood, Sr. Darryl Monroe, Fr.
Third Eric Oertel, So. Chester Su'a, Fr. Logan Mayes, Fr.

Level of certainty: Low. I don't know that there's a starter locked in to any of these three positions heading into training camp. Mizell wasn't the starter at the end of the spring, apparently having clashed with new linebacker coach Chris Tormey, and Kaufusi didn't play much in the spring to concentrate on his studies. Hoffman-Ellis is probably the safest bet to start, despite his problems with tackling, both because of his experience and his amazing athleticism, which still apparently tantalizes the coaching staff. But Hoffman-Ellis has had injury issues in the past that could crop up again. It wouldn't be a shock to see any combination of these nine players manning the three starting spots against Idaho State.

Risk of volatility: High. No matter who starts in the season opener, it could be wild ride this year. Mizell has repeatedly demonstrated a high knucklehead factor. Hoffman-Ellis has shown that all the athleticism doesn't always translate into football plays. Kaufusi hasn't been so good that he's a shoo-in to hold off all challengers. And Markle, Monroe, Oertel, Su'a, Mayes, Max Hersey and Tana Pritchard all will be looking to move up the depth chart. All of these guys will have the opportunity to play themselves onto -- or off of -- the field. Expect to see lots of combinations here over the 12 games.

Biggest questions: I'm going to cheat and go with two, because both are important.

Will Hoffman-Ellis finally learn to play linebacker? Oh, that speed, reported to be close to the best on the team, even at 6-foot-1, 240 pounds. But oh, those mistakes. Hoffman-Ellis consistently ran himself out of position and repeatedly failed to make tackles. With one season left, can Tormey -- one of the better coaches on the West Coast -- finally get Hoffman-Ellis to turn that athleticism into some real playmaking ability?

Does Mizell finally his crap together? In terms of pure talent, Mizell is the best NFL prospect on the roster, and it's probably not close. But Mizell also leads the team in inconsistency, and that also is probably not close. His antics in practice -- where teammates have had to implore him to work hard -- remind one of the adage "million-dollar body, five-cent brain." Mizell is a difference maker in the middle, but only if he can get on the field. It'll be interesting to see how a staff that likely is coaching for their jobs walks the fine line of maintaining discipline while also getting talent on the field.