PULLMAN — It was apparent even in 2010 that the Cougars had unearthed a future impact player in safety Deone Bucannon.
Starting in place of the injured Chima Nwachukwu back then, Bucannon racked up 16 tackles against Arizona, the most ever by a WSU freshman.
He’s been one of the Cougars’ best players ever since.
Bucannon is a defensive back of the “big-hitter” variety, whose greatest weakness has been a penchant for picking up flags while making mouthpiece-rattling hits. But as unkind as the safety is on the field, he is polite and soft-spoken when his pads come off, and he is deferential when talking about his breakout game.
“We had good linebackers on that team who, fortunately for me, had faith in me as a freshman,” Bucannon said. “So that made it a lot easier for me, even though I didn’t know what I was doing out there. I was a freshman — I barely knew the plays — but they led me along the way.”
Bucannon faces the Wildcats again today. No longer a precocious 18-year-old, he now is a senior leader on the WSU defense and considered one of the top safety prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.
“Statistically what’s he done, he’s had a tremendous year, and one of our leaders on defense and has to be,” defensive coordinator Mike Breske said. “A lot of his leadership is through his play, especially for the young guys to see. And we ask more of him … and we’ll need a big game out of him Saturday.”
Based on his numbers, Bucannon is one of the most versatile defenders in the conference. Like any good safety, he excels in pass coverage, as evidenced by his conference-leading five interceptions. But what sets Bucannon apart are his conference-leading 85 tackles — he is one of just two defensive backs in the Pacific-12 Conference’s top 10.
“You want to have both, as long as they stay within themselves, just do what they do best,” coach Mike Leach said. “And he’s good at the physical part of it.”
Breske added that Bucannon’s gaudy tackle numbers are a result of his ability to finish plays and prevent opposing offenses from big gains. With Bucannon acting as a safety net, the rest of the defense is able to take more chances, which has translated into 21 turnovers, third in the Pac-12.
WSU will need Bucannon’s best attempt to replicate his astounding freshman performance this weekend. Having a safety who excels in run support will be a boon for the Cougars, who take on one of the nation’s best running backs in Ka’Deem Carey. The junior is second in the country with 152.6 rushing yards per game, and averages 5.7 yards per rush.
Stopping Carey is a monumental task for the WSU safety. One that has him focused, if a little anxious.
“I’m going to … be at my best because I know he’s going to be at his best,” Bucannon said.