The linebackers in Mike Breske's 3-4 have a pretty simple job most of the time: Go get the ball carrier. They did that job pretty well in 2013, as linebackers held four of the top five spots in tackles -- as they should. Still, teams were able to move the ball on the ground a bit easier than fans would have liked, and the departure of tackling machine Justin Sagote means there's a big hole to fill.
Of course, there are players champing at the bit to get some action. Let's take a look at how the unit is shaping up, including who will be joining the returning players by signing letters of intent on Wednesday.
The returning players
Note: We don't actually know who's on scholarship. This is our best guess!
Projected depth chart
Buck: Palacio / Allison / McLennan
Sam: Coen / Pritchard?
Mike: Monroe / Pelluer
Will: Pritchard / Pelluer? / Allison?
Barring injury, the starters likely are set in stone. Monroe is the anchor in the middle, a classic thumper who started every game last season. He relishes contact, which seems to be a good excuse to use this:
Also feel free to click here for more Darryl Monroe fun.
Next to him likely will be Cyrus Coen, who started the first 11 games last season at Sam before giving way to Tana Pritchard. Pritchard also saw time earlier in the year relieving now-graduated Justin Sagote at Will, so it makes sense that Coen would resume starting at Sam with Pritchard stepping into replace Sagote.
As for Buck, Palacio had made his way into the starting lineup by the end of the year. It should be noted that Palacio didn't actually start at Buck in the last few games; Destiny Vaeao was listed as the starter there with Palacio at defensive end, which is a little weird. That said, I don't know that it much matters; we try really hard to classify guys into little boxes around here, and defensive coordinator Mike Breske has shown he doesn't think nearly as narrowly as we do. Palacio is almost certainly going to start whether you call him the end or the Buck or whatever.
McLennan and Pelluer both were highly thought of recruits who redshirted last season and will be expected to make significant contributions. McLennan appears locked into Buck, where he practiced all season, but he's athletic enough that it wouldn't be shocking if he moved around a bit in order to get him on the field. (The same could be said for Allison, who practiced at some other spots during fall camp.) Pelluer, meanwhile, has the skillset of a Mike, but again, it wouldn't be a shock if he was able to back up a couple of different positions, especially Will, which is more of a downhill tackling spot.
Hersey has flip-flopped between offense and defense in his career and has yet to force his way onto the field; it's tough to say if he could do more than be a backup at Mike. Edit: Hersey apparently quit the program mid-January, according to Cougfan.com. That news really flew under the radar.
It actually would help a lot if Davey or Su'a (or both) returned to the team in 2014.
Traditional linebacker: Greg Hoyd (6-3/210), Frank Luvu (6-2/215)
Both of these guys appear to project as outside linebackers, at least initially. Hoyd has the frame to pack on more muscle, so he could eventually end up inside -- a good thing, since WSU's only clear inside linebacker prospect, Chandler Leniu, decommitted a while ago and is now headed to Cal. From SB Nation's scouting report:
The hallmark of Hoyd III's game is his physicality. His strong hands allow him to knock blockers back when engaging them at the point of attack. He fills gaps extremely hard and also has the vision to find the ball carrier in tight spaces. He's an explosive wrap tackler who doesn't seem preoccupied with the highlight hit. Instead, he drives his frame through the ballcarrier rarely surrendering yards after contact.
Could Hoyd push for immediate playing time? It's possible with all that potential open space behind the starters.
Buck: Kingston Fernandez (6-3/235), Hercules Mata'afa (6-3/220)
Both guys are roundly thought of in scouting circles as players who need some time to develop -- both in terms of strength and technique.
Xavier Ulutu (6-1/240)
A consensus three-star recruit, Ulutu is that middle linebacker prospect this class seems to be lacking. He's down to choosing between WSU and Fresno State; he took an official visit to Pullman two weeks ago and Fresno last weekend. The San Diego native indicated a couple of weeks ago that he'd likely wait until signing day to make his final decision.
Given the expected development of Monroe, Coen, Pritchard and Palacio, the starters should be stronger than they were in 2013, even with the loss of Sagote. But there are so many question marks behind them, an injury or two could put this unit into a major tailspin.
Or, McLennan and Pelluer could be revelations whose ability was hidden only by the veil of their redshirts. Tough to say!
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