By Christian Caple
PULLMAN — In the same breath admitting his bias, Washington State defensive line coach Joe Salave’a, himself a former pro in the trenches, calls WSU’s defensive front “the heart and soul” on that side of the ball.
“If those big guys aren’t there on either side,” Salave’a said, “then it’s just a 7-on-7 drill.”
In this instance, “big guys” isn’t just a synonym, but quite a literal statement at WSU this season.
Consider that senior nose tackle Ioane Gauta, who started every game last season, stands 6-foot-3 and now 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-foot-3, and the average weight is 290 pounds.
There are NFL teams less massive at that position.
“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.”
Salave’a constantly preaches improvement and effort and attention to detail, and his desire for mean, physical linemen is a frequent conversation topic. So it’s with no sugarcoating that he says: “Sometimes coaches have unrealistic goals, but I see the potential in these guys, and they’ve got to see it for themselves. They could be the best unit around here in a long time. But it’s easy to say that when it’s nice and cold in the AC and whatnot. You’ve got to come out here, roll up your sleeve and work on it.”
On either side of Gauta will be a returning contributor from last season. Xavier Cooper, who emerged as one of the team’s top run-stoppers as a freshman, is a virtual lock to start at tackle.
Cooper had 8.5 tackles for loss last season while starting nine games. He also finished with three sacks, as did Gauta, part of an effort that landed WSU 11th in the nation in that category.
Toni Pole, a fourth-year 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 stunning upset of Washington in the Apple Cup.
At 6-foot-1, 302 pounds and 6-foot-4, 303 pounds, respectively, Pole and Cooper combine with Gauta to form a menacing group in defensive coordinator Mike Breske’s base 3-4 alignment.
Their size lends believability to Cooper’s stated goal of being “the most physical, imposing defensive line in the Pac-12. And in the country.”
The Cougars showed flashes of fulfilling that desire last season. The Stanford Cardinal wound up winning the conference and a BCS bowl game, but they met resistance against WSU in their late-October matchup, one highlighted by the Cougars’ defensive effort.
Stanford, power offense and all, managed just 120 rushing yards and 3.2 yards per carry while squeaking out a victory. That was WSU’s defense at its finest. But the Cougars still finished a pedestrian 64th in the nation in run defense, yielding 163.3 yards per game.
“We saw that we could play with basically anybody in the country at times,” Pole said. “In terms of consistency, that’s the biggest asset that we need to clean up and polish, because as long as we’ll be able to play consistent, then we’ll be OK.”
“I think we’re still cleaning up a lot of things,” Cooper said. “I think it’s the little things that if we clean up, that’s going to help us in the long run. It’s just little things right now — footwork, pad level, those type of things.”
Perhaps the most intriguing member of the defensive front is Destiny Vaeao, a 6-foot-4, 290-pound sophomore whose move to buck linebacker gives the Cougars an especially stout look.
While Vaeao is, technically, a linebacker, Salave’a said “the buck linebacker’s DNA is a defensive lineman.”
“He’s that kind of athlete,” Salave’a said. “You don’t do that just with anybody. Not at that position. That’s the unique thing Destiny brings to the table. Those are the kind of kids that we need to maintain and continue to cultivate here in these parts.”
In the mix
Matthew Bock, a senior, started five games last year and played in all 12, and figures to be a mainstay in WSU’s defensive line rotation. So, too, does Lyman Faoliu, a junior-college transfer from Vallejo, Calif. Logan Mayes, who played the buck linebacker position last season, has moved to defensive end full-time and is trying to work his way back into the two-deeps.
Keep an eye on
Daniel Ekuale, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound freshman from American Samoa, has been getting plenty of reps with the No. 2 defense recently, which indicates the possibility of him seeing the field this season. Robert Barber, who redshirted last season with an injury, could see playing time if he’s well-conditioned and in-tune with the defensive playbook. Darryl Paulo, a third-year sophomore, played with the first-team defense in the spring and could be in the rotation, as well.
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, productive dividends this year. Especially if they stay healthy.
Cause for concern
The loss of sacks leader and all-around standout Travis Long might be easy to overlook during camp, but his departure could really be felt once the lights come on.