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2011 WSU DEPTH CHART: Travis Long, D-Line Ready For A Breakthrough?

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 players and also try to guess what's going to play out in August during training camp. Previous: QBs, DBs, RBs, LBs.

One of the biggest criticisms of Paul Wulff in his three years has been the inability to build a serviceable line on either side of the ball, something we'll explore in more depth when we tackle the offensive line next week. We spent a little bit of time in the last feature taking the linebackers to task, but we'd be remiss if we simply let the line in front of them off the hook, because they generally weren't helping the cause last year.

In run defense, the primary responsibility of a defensive lineman is to occupy blockers -- more than one if at all possible -- in order to both clog up running lanes and allow the linebackers to fly in unimpeded to ball carriers. In pass defense, it's to get to the passer in four seconds or less.

Let's just say neither skill has been on display much the last three years. The Cougs ranked 117th in yards per rushing attempt last year, which is damning of both their run and pass defense, as sacks are figured into the rushing stats in the NCAA. WSU was 77th nationally in sacks, which seems OK by comparison, but in actuality is still pretty terrible.

This was a veteran group last year, led by seniors Kevin Kooyman and Bernard Wolfgramm, so one might conclude that this unit might have a tough time moving forward. But that's unlikely to be the case.

Brandon Rankin, who entered school last year with high expectations but was a bit of a disappointment, will finally have a year of Division I strength and conditioning under his belt, and should be primed for a big senior season. Travis Long, who was as good as a freshman on the defensive line as anyone I can remember, struggled at times last year, but still finished sixth on the team in tackles despite essentially playing with one arm. His shoulder has been surgically repaired, and he's likely ready to take a big step forward. Anthony Laurenzi was a revelation at tackle as the year went on.

There's depth behind them, too. If I was to pick one unit that might seem to come out of nowhere and surprise a lot of people this year, this would be the one.

Starter Travis Long, Jr. Anthony Laurenzi, Jr.* Brandon Rankin, Sr.* Ian Knight, Jr.
Backup Jordan Pu'u Robinson, So.* Toni Pole, Fr.* Steven Hoffart, Jr.* Niko Aumua, Jr.
Third Skylar Stormo, Jr.* Justin Clayton, So.* Xavier Cooper, Fr. Eli Edwards, Jr.

Level of certainty:
Medium. Long and Laurenzi are entrenched in their spots. Rankin wasn't the starter coming out of spring after sitting out with an injury -- Pole was -- but if he's in shape come August, he'll likely ascend back to starter. It probably doesn't matter much, anyway, as the tackles likely will be rotated liberally. As for the end opposite Long? Knight has a leg up after arriving in time for spring practice, but the other two junior college transfers will get a shot at starting, too, as will Pu'u Robinson if he's recovered from last season's devastating knee injury. This spot is definitely up in the air, but we know one thing: It's likely going to go to the guy who can give the best pass rush.

Risk of volatility: Medium. The biggest thing that could probably throw uncertainty into the mix here is injuries. Long, Rankin and Robinson have all undergone surgeries in the past 12 months, while Pole missed all of last year because of a nagging leg problem. Of particular concern is Rankin, who was out of shape all of last season after taking a year off from football to get his academics in order. Will he be fully recovered and game ready by September? Additionally, that end spot opposite Long is wide, wide open. It wouldn't shock me to see any one of four guys out there.

Biggest question: Who's going to generate a pass rush? Paul Wulff made it no secret that adding some guys who could rush the quarterback was a high priority, and he did that by signing a trio of JC players who theoretically should be able to compete immediately. Smart fans have learned to dial down their expectations of JC transfers, but could one of these guys resemble the sort of speed rusher we haven't seen in nearly a decade? Also: Can Long become a force of the edge? He doesn't have elite explosion, but as a junior, it's time for him to give the Cougs a little more in terms of pressure than he has in the past.