PULLMAN — There is one major difference between the group of Washington State linebackers who will play this season, and the group that started in 2012.
That is: You’ve probably heard of these guys.
That wasn’t necessarily the case last year, when disciplinary issues and graduation wiped out a group that many thought would be one of the team’s strengths.
As it turned out, it still was. Darryl Monroe, now a third-year sophomore, emerged last season as one of the more physically gifted players on WSU’s defense, and he’s back to occupy the MIK linebacker spot in defensive coordinator Mike Breske’s base 3-4 defense.
Justin Sagote was a junior-college transfer who wasn’t on the radar of casual fans. He wound up starting 10 games, and figures to begin the 2013 season in the starting lineup at WIL linebacker. Eric Oertel used to be a running back. Now he’s back for his second season as a regular contributor — and possible starter — at SAM linebacker.
So while the difference might simply be name recognition, the similarities are obvious — the Cougars’ group of linebackers, thought a year ago to be one of the defense’s bigger liabilities, is now one of the more reliable units on the team.
“I want them to look at us and be like, this group of young men are very aggressive, relentless, and play with a ‘bad’ attitude — aka, a chip on our shoulders,” Monroe said. “Oh, and that we hustle, and run to the ball. That’s No. 1. These boys run to the ball.”
There is no more of a sure thing on WSU’s defense — with the possible exception of senior safety Deone Bucannon — as Monroe starting at MIK (middle) linebacker.
He not only started every game in 2012 as a freshman and finished second on the team with 80 tackles, but it’s obvious to even infrequent observers of WSU’s practices that Monroe is one of the more respected players on the team.
That position requires it.
“On my good defenses over the years, my MIK linebacker has been the leader,” Breske said. “The defensive linemen respect them, the DBs respect them. They’re involved in the run game, they’re involved in the pass game. I’ve just always had good leadership there.”
And that’s how Oertel views the group as a whole — as the leaders of the defense, despite the fact that WSU’s ultra-sized defensive line could be considered the most imposing facet of the Cougars’ defense.
“There’s a reason why linebackers are in between the secondary and those guys on the front down there,” said Oertel, a senior. “They’re the center of the defense. Without any one position group, our defense isn’t going to be good, but I just think we bring a lot of leadership to the defense.”
Experience gained during the ups and downs of last season should help. Among Monroe, Sagote, Oertel and Cyrus Coen, a former walk-on who made 11 starts last year and is “neck and neck” with Oertel at the SAM spot, according to linebackers coach Ken Wilson, the Cougars have a group that all of a sudden feels seasoned instead of suspect.
“I feel like we’re to that point now where all the learning stuff is out, and just play fast,” Oertel said. “That’s what it’s going to take, especially against an Auburn team that likes to go tempo, and if you think out there it’s going to be bad. Every time you think out on that field, it’s going to be six.”
Destiny Vaeao figures to start at the buck linebacker position, though his makeup is more that of a defensive lineman.
In the mix
Jared Byers provides some experience as Monroe’s backup at MIK linebacker, and it’s entirely possible that Coen could win the starting spot from Oertel at SAM linebacker. Both will play substantially. Kache Palacio and Ivan McLennan have each seen time at the buck spot in the spring and fall, and Palacio seems the coaches’ preferred choice in certain situations.
Third-year sophomore Tana Pritchard was pushing Sagote for the No. 1 will linebacker spot in the spring, and has seen his share of snaps with the No. 1 defense during camp, too. He will be a factor in WSU’s linebacker rotation.
Sophomore Jeremiah Allison, who played mostly special teams last season, could see the field some, too, as could freshman Peyton Pelluer.
Reason for optimism
At times last season, Monroe and Co. looked the part of a fast, physical Pac-12 linebacking corps. A full season in Breske’s system, coupled with another offseason in the weight room, could mean more consistency in 2013.
Cause for concern
Can Vaeao, at 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds, meet the pass-coverage demands of the buck linebacker spot?