Washington State linebacker C.J. Mizell tackles Oregon wide receiver Jeff Maehl in game this season.  (Dean Hare / Fr158448 Ap)
Washington State linebacker C.J. Mizell tackles Oregon wide receiver Jeff Maehl in game this season. (Dean Hare / Fr158448 Ap)

Grading WSU’s young lions on defense

PULLMAN – If the recent past is a minefield for the Washington State defense, and it is, then the future is the safe haven on the other side.

The Cougar defense has been shattered more than once the past three years, finishing 108th nationally out of 119 teams in total defense in 2008, 120th and last in 2009, and 120th again after 10 games this season.

But there is hope, and it’s in the form of seven players who have received their first major college playing time this year. All but one will be counted on heavily when the Cougars face Oregon State on Saturday in Corvallis.

The leaders are two true freshmen, strong safety Deone Bucannon and middle linebacker C.J. Mizell. Both were midseason replacements – both for good in the sixth game – for injured starters who played so well they have kept their spots.

Both are among the Pac-10 leaders in tackles, with Bucannon third (8.9 per game) and Mizell 16th (6.8) in conference games. They are also the only two freshmen among the top 50.

But Mizell and Bucannon are not alone as necomers on the defensive side of the ball.

Cornerback Nolan Washington, tackle Brandon Rankin, linebacker Sekope Kaufusi, safety Casey Locker and now out-for-the-season cornerback Damante Horton are some of the 18 players who have been in the two-deep this season and will be back next year.

“They have brought speed, toughness and more physical play,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said of the young group that has seen its playing time grow. “They’ve also added more passion than we’ve had.”

Below we take a look at the first seasons for these seven, with our grades along with comments provided by WSU co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball.

Bucannon: The freshman from Fairfield, Calif., saw his first starting action at SMU, where he made five tackles. After being used in a reserve role for two games, he took over the strong safety role for good against Oregon. Since making five tackles against the Ducks, he’s had 16, 15, 8 and 10 tackles.

Ball: “He’s playing exceptionally well. He makes some mental mistakes and missed tackles, but, as far as playing that position as a true freshman, I’ve only had one other guy do that as well, Eric Coleman.”

Grade for the season thus far: A-

Horton: A true freshman from Oakland, Horton had just begun to see regular action when he tore up his knee against Arizona. Despite being just 5-10 and 160 pounds, Horton had eight tackles against UCLA and its power running game.

Ball: “He was doing really well. He can be a great player if he keeps working.”

Grade: Incomplete

Kaufusi: After starting the year at defensive end, the redshirt freshman moved to linebacker for the Oregon game. Though he’s had to sit a game due to injury, he’s brought size (6-foot-3, 233 pounds) to the linebacking corps.

Ball: “Probably should have moved him a lot sooner. The first game we played him at linebacker, he played really, really well, then got a little banged up.”

Grade: C+

Locker: Another redshirt freshman, Locker wasn’t expected to play all that much this season. But LeAndre Daniels’ neck injury opened the nickel-back spot and Locker has taken it over. He’s missed some open-field tackles and had to deal with a bad shoulder, but the Ferndale, Wash., native has been more consistent recently.

Ball: “The great thing about him is he practices extremely hard and he understands the defense.”

Grade: C+

Mizell: After a rocky start in Pullman – Mizell was kicked out of a drill for lack of effort, missed a practice for personal issues and took a while to learn the work ethic needed at this level – the freshman from Tallahassee, Fla., has anchored the defense in the middle. His 12 tackles against California last week not only tied a career high, they came in his best game.

Ball: “He just keeps getting better. He sat out a year and he was out of shape, but he’s made big strides. Really proud of the way he’s come along.”

Grade: B-

Rankin: A junior college transfer who, like Mizell, did not play football last season, Rankin came the Pullman carrying a lot of hype. The 6-5, 281-pound junior has had to learn a new position – tackle – while also learning the ins-and-outs of major college football. He’s now backing up sophomore Anthony Laurenzi.

Ball: “It’s a learning process, especially for those junior college kids. He’s sat out a year, so he’s rusty, but it’s really no different than a freshman coming in. It’s a grind to him too. … If you get one good year, you’re doing well. And he’s headed in that direction. He’s a hit a wall, fought through it and is making good progress.”

Grade: D+

Washington: After redshirting last season, Washington stepped into the starting lineup in the first game. He’s had some growing pains, but has come on strong recently, coming up with his first career interception against Cal.

Ball: “He has had two good games in a row. He started out not being as physical as he needed to be, but he’s changed that. He’s starting to make plays.”

Grade: B

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