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Led by Hercules Mata'afa, the 2016 WSU defensive line once again will retool

In part two of an eight-part look at the past, present and future of each of the Cougars' units, we assess the defensive line situation, which looks solid.

Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

With signing day in the rearview mirror and spring football still a month away, now's a great time to take stock of each of the eight position groups on WSU's roster. After first tackling perhaps the most stable group on the roster -- the quarterbacks -- let's flip over to a defensive unit that needs to replace a couple of starters for the second installment of our series: The defensive line.

Other Installments: Quarterbacks

Looking Back at 2015

End of Season Depth Chart
Starter Darryl Paulo, RS-Sr Robert Barber, RS-Jr Destiny Vaeao, Sr.
Backup Reggie Coates, RS-Jr Daniel Ekuale, RS-So Hercules Mata'afa, RS-Fr.
Tackles Def Int Fumbles
Player Solo Ast Tot Loss Sk Int Yds Avg TD PD FR Yds TD FF
Destiny Vaeao 20 20 40 12 4.5 1 1 1
Darryl Paulo 21 18 39 13.5 6.5 1 1
Hercules Mata'afa 18 11 29 9.5 5.5 1 1
Daniel Ekuale 18 4 22 5 0 1
Robert Barber 7 10 17 4.5 1 2
Devonte McClain 1 3 4 0 0
Reggie Coates 0 2 2 0 0 1

In Brief: The season began with a lot of anxiety after the departures of stalwart interior defenders Kalafitoni Pole and Xavier Cooper, the latter of whom declared for the NFL Draft as an underclassman, leading to his selection in the third round by the Cleveland Browns. But the concerns proved to be largely unfounded, at least in the sense that the unit didn't take a step back.

Destiny Vaeao stepped into the disruptive role vacated by Pole and appears to also be headed for an NFL roster, and Robert Barber and Daniel Ekuale proved to be stout at the point of attack. Perhaps the biggest revelation was Darryl Paulo, who seemed to constantly get overlooked despite leading the unit in both tackles for loss and sacks.

That's not to say the unit was spectacular; Bill Connelly's advanced stats rated the defensive line as more or less average relative to their peers in terms of line yards, sack rates and general havoc. That seems to jive with what my eyes saw, so there's still room for improvement here as Alex Grinch continues to build his defense.

Looking Ahead to 2016

Who Departs: Destiny Vaeao (6-4/298), Darryl Paulo (6-2/255), Devonte McClain (6-5/304).

Projected Depth Chart
Starter Hercules Mata'afa, RS-So. Robert Barber, RS-Sr. Daniel Ekuale, RS-Jr.
Backup Reggie Coates, RS-Sr. Ngalu Tapa, RS-So. Jeremiah Mitchell, Sr.
3rd, etc Kingston Fernandez, RS-So.
Garrett McBroom, Jr.
Lyric Bartley, Fr. T.J. Fehoko, RS-Fr.
Danny Bender, Fr. Hunter Mattox, RS-Fr.

In Brief: Replacing Vaeao and Paulo is going to be an interesting exercise. Vaeao and Cooper were fairly similar in stature and style, but there's nobody on the roster who appears to be a direct plug-and-play replacement for Vaeao.

Hercules Mata'afa was listed as Vaeao's backup ... at just 6-foot-2 and 242 pounds. Basically, he racked up all those stats as a pass-rush specialist, and while he was indeed exceedingly disruptive from an interior position on passing downs, I'm curious to see how bulked up he gets for this season and whether Grinch and Joe Salave'a are comfortable with him as an every down player. Meanwhile, Nevada transfer Reggie Coates served as Paulo's backup, but it certainly seemed as if the top five players in the stats above played the majority of the snaps across the three positions.

That means it might continue to be a situation where Grinch and Salave'a mix-and-match depending on opponent and situation; depending on the development of Ngalu Tapa, perhaps Ekuale slides over to tackle, Mata'afa moves to end and Tapa ends up backing up Barber. That makes the most sense to me, at least on an early-down basis, and is reflected in the projection above ... but it's really just a shot in the dark, as there is no obvious line of succession, and these guys are going to move around, anyway.

Other returning players in the mix will be Jeremiah Mitchell, Kingtson Fernandez, T.J. Fehoko (a highly touted recruit who redshirted with an injury) and Hunter Mattox. Newcomer Garrett McBroom, a junior college transfer who is already enrolled, will play right away. Freshmen Lyric Bartley and Danny Bender are most likely headed for Thursday Night Football exploits, but they'll certainly get a chance to prove their worth. Bartley in particular could be ready to play immediately.

Additionally, we'll all be keeping an eye on Tapa. He's a big dang dude with as much natural talent as any lineman on the roster, but coaches were disappointed with his conditioning last season and he failed to record even a tackle in limited action. Can he finally start delivering on his promise?

2017 Recruiting Outlook

Similar to quarterback, defensive line will be another important point of emphasis for Leach this year: WSU signed zero interior defensive linemen in 2016 after failing to get the lone interior defensive lineman signed in 2015 onto campus. (That would be Thomas Toki, who is heading to a junior college after failing to qualify.)

Leach tried to downplay the situation on signing day:

"Well, we've got D tackles running around campus, that's the biggest thing. Now, this would be a nitpicky time. The bigger priority was definitely D-ends, those type of guys, and we took care of that. And this will definitely take care of itself -- there is perhaps a slight imbalance on our roster (with defensive tackles) -- a couple of guys as they get older will almost certainly evolve toward that position."

Still, Barber will be graduating. And while part of the reason a school such as WSU runs a 3-4 is to mitigate the difficulty in recruiting those big run-stuffers at the 1-technique, you'd still like to land a guy each year who projects there. Two years without one means WSU seemingly has to make this a priority.

The Cougars also will be hot on the tails of defensive ends, because you can never have too many pass rushers, but it's less of a pressing need. You can read about the offers that are already out here.