We can say a lot of things about the Washington State defense, many of which would be critical, but first let's look at the bright spots. The Cougars are strong up the middle, or were on Thursday against BYU. It might be surprising considering the losses, but Mike Breske may have found two solid players at nose guard and MIKE linebacker.
I'm talking about Ioane Gauta and Darryl Monroe -- two players who made their first career starts at Washington State on Thursday. Monroe is coming off an Achilles injury suffered almost exactly a year ago while Gauta transferred in to provide an immediate boost on the defensive line. Both played without fear on Thursday, blowing away blockers and anyone in their path.
I've been convinced for a long time that had Monroe not blown out his Achilles in the season-opener last year, he would've played a big role at middle linebacker for the Cougars. At the very least, Monroe would've challenged and pushed C.J. Mizell. But he also may have passed Mizell, and given the coaches an out -- in the form of a capable replacement -- had their temperamental linebacker acted up. He was that good then, and he still is.
Monroe is every bit the physical player that Mizell was, but without all the extra "stuff" that made the former linebacker so frustrating. He works hard in practice, plays with a supreme amount of confidence, and looks to lay hat on every snap. That physical presence in the middle -- as long as he's healthy -- should provide a big boost to the defense as the year progresses.
An example of Monroe announcing his presence came early. Facing a 3rd and 1, BYU lined up in a jumbo set with an I formation in the backfield. The idea was simple: Give the running back a lead blocker and run over the WSU defense to get the first down. Monroe had other ideas, and absolutely destroyed the fullback.
Later, again facing a short-yardage situation, Monroe -- and someone else -- went over the pile to help bottle up the running back for no gain. He plays with a fearlessness that will endear him to most while resulting in some highlight reel plays.
Ha, there were 12 men on the field (someone didn't quite get to the sidelines).
And then there's Gauta (or Junior, as he's known) -- the guy who went through one fall practice with blood streaming from his nose, leaving his white jersey looking like a canvas covered in red paint. He didn't care, and it never seemed to phase him at the time as he continued to go about his work in the trenches. That type of mentality -- playing with an attitude and toughness -- is what Joe Salave'a is looking for.
"I like to beat up people, so my whole deal is more of a one on one kind of deal so a lot of our drills emphasis are hands and leverage and flat backs and being really just harnessing the physical aspect. The unique thing about it is with our defense, it'll help some of our guys who are not quite built for those kind of physicality, with their movement and athleticism will play a part in the defensive scheme," Salave'a said earlier this fall. "I think it's a good marriage, but I believe when all is said and done, football is football. I've got to slap that guy in front of me before he slaps me. If he slaps me once, I've got to get him 10 times."
Against BYU, when the lights came on and it was time to play, Gauta was as expected. He held his ground in the middle and didn't let the BYU offensive line push him around. He was a model of what Salave'a wants to see, and drew praise from Breske.
"Junior didn't go backwards at all, and that's getting back to my point of physicality," Breske said. "Junior was very physical with BYU. It was great to see that."
The spine (soccer term) of the defense looks solid with Gauta and Monroe anchoring the front seven up the middle. It's still early, but there were good things to take away from the play of the two newcomers. Add in Deone Bucannon, who I still am high on, and Taylor Taliulu, who has shown a ton of potential, and the middle of the defense has a chance to be solid.
There are still issues -- the secondary will struggle and the edges are soft -- but a strong middle of the defense is a good starting point to work with, so long as Gauta and Monroe can stay healthy throughout the year.
*A big thank you to Jeff Collier for coming through in the clutch with GIFs.