PULLMAN – Texas Tech led the nation in passing for six of the last eight years Mike Leach coached the Red Raiders, so it comes as no surprise that the offense has drawn most of the attention as Leach prepares for his first season at Washington State.
WSU’s defensive players said they understand why there’s so much fuss about the offense, but they plan to earn a few headlines themselves.
“We know a lot of the fans and a lot of the media want to put a lot of the spotlight on the offense, but that’s just feeding us,” linebacker Eric Oertel said.
“We’re used to it. We’re starting to love it. We’re starting to feel we’ve got a chip on our shoulders.”
Despite having No. 1 quarterback Jeff Tuel sidelined with injuries for most of last season, the Cougars ranked ninth in the nation in passing. WSU finished with a 4-8 record in large part because the defense ranked in the bottom third nationally in points allowed, passing yards allowed and total yards allowed.
“We’ve got to show that we can play, too,” end-tackle Steven Hoffart said. “We’re going to win some games for this team, too.”
“Defense is going to win games,” buck linebacker Travis Long agreed. “You can’t be letting up 50 points and trying to catch up and score 50 points, so defense is still very crucial.”
Long, a three-year starter at defensive end, said the switch from a base 4-3 defense to a 3-4 (with some 4-3 still utilized) “really hasn’t been too bad” for himself or the defense as a whole.
“A lot of this stuff is the same,” he said. “Concepts are kind of the same, easy to teach.”
Added Logan Mayes, another buck linebacker: “I think a lot of the changes were a good fit for our defense. Personnel-wise, for some of these teams up in the Northwest, it’s easier to recruit the personnel for a 3-4 defense than a 4-3 defense because you can’t really recruit those kind of 6-(foot-)4, 6-5, 300-pound defensive tackles that are going to be able to play ‘3’ technique.
“We do have one of those guys – Xavier Cooper. He’s extremely talented. But generally, it’s harder to recruit those guys.
“On the other hand, you play four linebackers, it’s easy to get four hard-nosed guys. Like the kind of guys that Boise State gets every year: hard-nosed, hard-working, lunch-pail kind of guys. You can get four of those guys every year and then just a big nose tackle from California, and you’re set.”
Toni Pole, a 6-1, 277-pound nose tackle from Union City, Calif., is smaller than the prototypical nose tackle Mayes described. Pole seems to have the “hard-nosed” part down pat, however, thanks in part to new defensive line coach Joe Salave’a, who played nine years in the NFL as a defensive lineman.
“He’s a really good coach,” Pole said. “He knows how to coach us as a whole and on a personal basis because he’s been there before. … ”
“He emphasizes the same thing: ‘You’re going to line up, and it’s all about match-ups. When you put your hand down on the ground, are you going to kick their (butt) or is he going to kick your (butt)?’ ”
Salave’a, a teddy bear off the field, can be a raging bear during practice.
“He gets pretty intense,” Cooper said.
“It’s fun to see that big guy during team (sessions); he gets excited,” Pole said. “He flails his arms around. He sees a running back, he starts chasing him down the field, trying to get us to run to the ball.”
“Coach Joe, he’s amazing,” said Cooper, a likely starter at end as a redshirt freshman out of Tacoma’s Wilson High School. “He’s a good dude. You’ve got to listen to a guy like that because he has so much experience in the NFL.”
Leach did not make things easier for the defense by kicking three of the 2011 starters off the team after run-ins with the law.
“It’s tough,” Mayes said. “Those were good players. They’re all starters and all very talented.
“All probably had futures in the NFL, and they still might. At the same time, those are the golden rules (that were broken), and they knew they were the golden rules when they broke them.”
“Next guy in,” Long interjected.
From Tuel’s vantage point, several of those “next guys” look extremely talented.
“We’ve got a bunch of athletes out there,” Tuel said. “We’re not a very big (defensive) group, it’s obvious, but we’re super athletic and fast.
“We’ve got a lot of guys flying around that can definitely make some plays. I’ve got all the confidence in the world in those guys.”