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WSU D-line to test mettle on Saturdays

Note: This is the final position preview of Washington State University’s 2010 football team. Today: Defensive line.

PULLMAN – Click on your dictionary, type in the word savage and such words as fierce, ferocious, unpolished and rugged dot the definition.

And all of them could apply to this year’s Washington State University defensive line.

That might explain why the group breaks a huddle with one word: savages.

“That’s how we want to play,” said sophomore end Travis Long.

A new word for a new year. It’s a different group with a different mind-set running a different scheme this season and, Long and his mates hope, with different results.

Last year the Cougars were fourth from the bottom nationally in run defense and sixth from the cellar in passing defense and sacks, three statistical black marks that can be blamed in at least some part on disappointing play up front.

Injuries cut away at the group’s core – only true freshman Long started all 12 games – and sapped its strength, physically and mentally.

Which made rebuilding the front four an offseason priority. So far, it seems to be working.

Senior end Kevin Kooyman, who injured his knee the second week last season, decided to come back for another year despite earning a degree. Senior tackle Bernard Wolfgramm spent the offseason toning his body, losing weight and strengthening his balky back. Junior college transfer Brandon Rankin shucked off an offer from Alabama and made his way from North Carolina to Pullman, where he’s gathered rave reviews.

And Long, honorable mention All-Pac-10 last year, put on a few pounds, added muscle and came to camp ready to improve.

“I just want to be more consistent on stopping the run,” he said. “I need to get more consistent (establishing) a new line of scrimmage back, getting off the ball better, making my hand placement better.”

The four have blended quickly, each filling a role in the Cougars’ defensive scheme. The first two weeks of practice, the group gave the offense fits.

But don’t take our word on it.

“The defensive line, they’ve improved tremendously,” said safety Tyree Toomer. “They’ve helped us out so much. It just makes our job so much easier.”

How so?

“I can remember from previous years, the safety would be one-on-one with the running back as soon as the running back got the ball,” Toomer explained. “But now, by the time we get there, he’s being tackled by a D-lineman or linebacker.”

“It’s night and day,” said cornerback Nolan Washington. “They’re dominating from the ones to the twos to the threes. … The quarterbacks can’t even get a play off. That makes my job so much easier.”

It also has made defensive line coach Malik Roberson’s job easier as well, as he freely admits. Each player has a role, Roberson said, and they all are performing it – in practice.

Kooyman, at 6-foot-6 and 262 pounds, is “the big strong defensive end that has to give us the push from the weak side,” Roberson said.

Wolfgramm, 6-3, 285, is the nose tackle who must control the A gap, the hole between the center and guard. “We like him to be more disruptive than to just hold the A gap,” Roberson said.

Rankin, 6-5, 281, is the inside pass rusher, given the freedom to attack. “His biggest role is to rush the passer,” Roberson explained.

And the 6-4, 258-pound Long? He has to control the tight end’s side, using his athleticism to fill many roles.

“We mesh pretty well together and seem to work well together collapsing the pocket in pass rush and getting all the gaps filled in the run,” Long said. “It’s kind of nice having a cohesive group.”

And some depth.

“It’s been nice to have a rotation in the fall camp. Guys have stayed fresher and that’s one of the main reasons we’ve stayed healthy,” Roberson said, adding “knock on wood.”

But nicks and pains might not hurt as much, with the emergence of sophomore Anthony Laurenzi, freshmen Sekope Kaufusi, Justin Clayton and Toni Pole, to go along with senior Casey Hamlett and junior college transfer Steven Hoffart as backups.

All of the hype, however, has yet to be realized on the field. For Rankin and many of the reserves, Saturday’s opener at Oklahoma State will be their first taste of big-time college football.