Last season the Washington State defensive line scraped by in the Pac-12. The Cougars finished 10th in total defense and ninth in rush defense, but considering that four players accounted for more than 80 percent of their defensive line snaps in a 3-4 formation, that’s not too bad.
Now, thanks to a bit of added depth at the position, the Cougars are on the cusp of something much greater.
“We’re at the doorstep now,” defensive line coach Joe Salave'a said. “We’re past knocking on it. I’d like to take that damn thing down, knock it wide open.”
Considering the personnel that Salave’a thinks he has, it wouldn’t be very difficult to take down a door. Or a house, for that matter.
The Cougars lost tackle Ionae Gauta, but Salave’a still feels strongly enough in his two deep that if Washington State was to start its season tomorrow he believes he could play six different D-linemen.
The first few names on that list shouldn’t be too surprising: Kalafitoni Pole, Xavier Cooper and Destiny Vaeao. The three lesser-known names in the two-deep rotation would be: Darryl Paulo, Robert Barber and Daniel Ekuale.
It’s an interesting group of players, evenly split between an experienced first line and an unseasoned second line, but Pole said that there haven’t been any real distinctions in practice as the groups have been practicing hard together.
“They say you’re only as good as your weakest link,” Pole said. “It’s not as though we’re only focusing on the veterans. We are trying to detail everything down to where everyone is on the same page. We’re trying to have a core group of guys to where we can have a rotation in there and be a strong presence play in, play out.”
The Cougars are going to need it in 2014.
Washington State has one of the toughest schedules in the conference. It opens Pac-12 play with Oregon -- which features four returning starters on the offensive line, as well as QB Marcus Mariota -- and doesn’t let up from there.
The only two teams on the Pac-12 portion of their schedule that don't return at least three offensive line starters from last season are Oregon State and Stanford. But the Cardinal have good experience from their back up O-linemen and the Beavers have signal-caller Sean Mannion.
All in all, the Cougars face four of the top five scoring offenses and the top six total offenses in the Pac-12 from 2013, which is no small feat for a team that gave up 5.9 yards per play last season.
But with a reinvigorated and deeper defensive line, the Cougars are on the right track in getting to quarterbacks and slowing offenses.
“It gives us that sense of relief of ‘When I’m tired, it’s OK,'" Pole said. “We have the ability to rotate guys in, so they spell us and we stay fresh for longer points in the game, so that when we get to the fourth quarter we’re still playing as hard as we did in the first quarter.”
That will be one big key for all Pac-12 teams this season as so many talented offenses and playmakers return. Finding consistency, especially along the defensive line, is going to be huge.