The Buck linebacker is the Swiss Army Knife in defensive coordinator Mike Breske's 3-4 scheme, and those who man the position must be equally adept at putting their hand on the ground to rush the passer and dropping into coverage.
An outstanding Buck, as Travis Long was in 2012, allows Breske to employ controlled chaos: Four- and five-man rushes designed more to cause confusion -- sometimes through stunts and overloads -- than to overwhelm opposing offensive lines. Done correctly, a team can both generate pressure and have enough players in coverage to stay sound in the back end -- think Dick LeBeau's Pittsburgh Steelers defenses. At the college level, Stanford (coincidentally) is one of the very best in the country. Both frequently employ "fire zone" schemes, which you can learn more about by reading that link, or by watching the video to the right.
It feels to a quarterback or offensive line like there are six coming when there are only five or four. This is what WSU hopes to accomplish, and the flexibility of the Buck -- who will lineup virtually anywhere in the box and both rush the QB and play pass coverage -- is a key element in that strategy.
The position, though, has been in a bit of flux ever since Long went down with a season-ending knee injury with one game to go last season. The presumed heir apparent to Long at the position, Logan Mayes started in the Apple Cup and performed admirably, but after sitting out the majority of spring drills with an injury, he was moved to defensive end at the beginning of fall camp. Breske was looking for someone more dynamic.
In Mayes' place came sophomore Destiny Vaeao, who -- at 6-4 and 290 -- dwarfs both Long (6-4/252) and Mayes (6-3/241). His body type hardly screams linebacker, but there he was, starting at Buck against Auburn and USC. With just four tackles against those two opponents, Vaeao didn't exactly light the world on fire; however, it's entirely possible he wasn't supposed to, in this sense: Both the Tigers and Trojans featured run-heavy attacks with a small proportion of passes, something Breske likely anticipated. Rather than being used in exotic ways to disrupt the offense, Vaeao generally was lined up with his hand in the ground as a fourth lineman, occupying blockers for the rest of the linebacking corps.
Somewhere along the line, either during or shortly after that second game, Vaeao came up lame and has missed the last two games. Enter Kache Palacio, another sophomore who, at 6-2/225, is as different from Vaeao as their discrepancies in stature suggest. Where Vaeao looks like a true defensive lineman, Palacio looks like a true linebacker. And in his two starts against Southern Utah and Idaho, Palacio's dynamic playmaking ability was on display for all to see.
Remember that fire zone above? Thanks to Jeff Collier's awesome video handiwork, here's a fire zone in which WSU sends five and Palacio comes free as two confused linemen double team someone else. The QB doesn't even have time to plant his foot before Palacio is on top of him. (Pro tip! If you have a hard time seeing things at full speed, click the YouTube icon at the bottom, and in the new window, click the gear icon in the lower right corner -- you can slow videos down to as little as quarter speed.)
And just in case you're not yet sold on his closing speed, here's a fun one from the Idaho game:
Put frankly, it's hard to imagine Vaeao pulling off either of those plays in that manner.
Then, of course, there was Palacio's
pick six play that didn't actually count against Southern Utah. He again lines up on his feet as WSU shows blitz with six guys. But in this particular fire zone, Palacio drops into coverage. As those other five guys get pressure on the QB -- thanks to a one-on-one matchup with a running back and blitzing linebacker (looks like Tana Pritchard) -- Palacio sits in his zone, identifies the crossing receiver, and reads the QB's eyes right into an interception and touchdown a play that totally didn't count but looked awesome:
In all, Palacio racked up 13 tackles, including two for loss with that sack above, in his two starts against SUU and Idaho. It was impressive, but it also came against lesser competition than what Vaeao faced.
So who gets the nod going forward?
Brian Floyd and I privately speculated that Vaeao starting at Buck was strategic move -- a recognition of the fact that WSU was playing a pair of run heavy teams with awful quarterbacks in the first two games where the need for a versatile Buck was minimal. Our thinking was that Palacio is the guy who presented better upside long term at the position, and the two home games would be the perfect time to work Palacio and his speed into the picture. Perhaps that actually was the plan, but with Vaeao's injury, it's impossible to know for sure.
What is apparent is that neither really seems to fit the prototypical mold for the position -- Vaeao is big and Palacio is small. But together, they present an interesting combination of talent. With Vaeao presumably ready to return to the lineup and another team on tap that likes to run first, second and third -- before going down the field for a big play on some play action -- it's going to be fascinating to see if Breske turns back to Vaeao this Saturday despite Palacio's play, and whether Palacio is deployed on downs that aren't obvious passing situations.