PULLMAN — In the same breath admitting his bias, Washington State defensive line coach Joe Salave’a, a former NFL pro in the trenches, calls WSU’s defensive front “the heart and soul” of the unit.
“If those big guys aren’t there on either side, then it’s just a 7-on-7 drill,” he said.
In this instance, “big guys” isn’t just a synonym, but quite a literal statement at WSU this season.
Senior nose tackle Ioane Gauta, who started every game last season, stands 6-foot-3 and weighs a relatively lean 285 pounds — and is the lightest member of WSU’s starting defensive front.
The average height of the four players — buck linebacker included — who comprise that front is 6-3, and the average weight is 295 pounds.
“I always take the hard-worker guy over the talent,” Salave’a said, “but (the size) helps a little bit with what we’re trying to get done up front. We’ve just got to continue to get these guys’ nutrition up and make sure they’re taking care of their bodies, because if they do that, their body will respond accordingly.”
On either side of Gauta will be a returning contributor from last year.
Former Wilson High School standout Xavier Cooper, who emerged as one of the Cougars’ top run-stoppers as a redshirt freshman, is a virtual lock to start at tackle. He recorded 8.5 tackles for loss and finished with three sacks last season.
Toni Pole, a redshirt junior, has spent the duration of camp as the third member of the defensive line. He started two games and appeared in all 12 a year ago, most notably intercepting the pass in overtime that led to WSU’s victory over Washington in the Apple Cup.
Pole (6-1, 302) and Cooper (6-4, 303) combine with Gauta to form a menacing group in defensive coordinator Mike Breske’s base 3-4 alignment.
Perhaps the most intriguing member of the defensive front is Destiny Vaeao, a 6-4, 290-pound sophomore whose move to buck linebacker gives the Cougars an especially stout look.
IN THE MIX
Senior Matthew Bock, who played in all 12 games last year, figures to be a mainstay in the defensive line rotation. So, too, does Lyman Faoliu, a junior-college transfer from Vallejo, Calif. Logan Mayes, who played the buck linebacker position last year, has become a full-time defensive end and is trying to work his way back into the two-deep roster.
KEEP AN EYE ON ...
Daniel Ekuale, a 6-3, 275-pound freshman from American Samoa, recently has gotten plenty of reps with the No. 2 defense. Robert Barber, who redshirted last season, and Darryl Paulo, a third-year sophomore, also could be in the rotation.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
This wasn’t a particularly experienced group last season, but their growing pains — coupled with a handful of impressive performances — could yield big-time dividends this year, especially if they stay healthy.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
The loss of sacks leader Travis Long could really be felt once the lights come on.