PULLMAN – The paths Sekope Kaufusi and C.J. Mizell followed have been different, but their joint destination is getting closer by the day.
The Washington State University freshmen – Kaufusi a redshirt; Mizell a first-year – could each see their first starts at linebacker on Saturday when the Cougars host No. 3 Oregon at Martin Stadium.
“So far in practice they’ve taken the majority of the reps,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said Thursday prior to practice. “So there is a really good chance that could happen. We’ll see how today goes.”
Kaufusi’s road to this week, in which he spent most of his practice time at the Will, or weakside, linebacker position, began last season, as the 6-foot-3, 229-pound freshman turned heads while playing linebacker for the scout team.
But his size made him a candidate to play defensive end in WSU’s scheme, filling a spot smaller, quicker linemen have excelled at before. The change was made last spring, mirroring a process that moved former linebacker Andy Mattingly to defensive end for his junior season.
“I talked to him about that (last year),” Kaufusi said. “He didn’t like it all. When they moved him back (to backer as a senior), he was like, ‘Oh yeah.’ And then in the locker room, when I used to see him, he was like, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it.’”
But told it was what the team needed, Kaufusi, from Palo Alto, Calif., followed directions. As a backup to Travis Long and an integral part of the special teams, he has played in every game, making six tackles, one for loss.
Now he’ll get a chance to make that many in one game. There’s a chance he’ll replace a hobbled Alex Hoffman-Ellis (back) in the starting lineup.
“I didn’t want him to go,” admitted linebackers coach Travis Niekamp, “so we’re excited to have him back.”
And Kaufusi is excited to be back.
“Playing standing up, I don’t know how to say it, I’m just ecstatic about it,” he said.
He tried to hide his enthusiasm Monday night when Wulff took him aside after a team meeting and told him he was headed back to linebacker.
“Yes, he did hide it, but I knew he was happy about it,” Wulff said. “I knew he would be because it was such a challenge to get him to move to (end).”
The original plan was to have Kaufusi back up Mizell in the middle, filling a void created by Mike Ledgerwood’s stiff neck. But with Hoffman-Ellis dealing with a sore back this week, Kaufusi has been taking reps at the Will spot.
“The great thing about Sekope is he’s versatile, he can play a couple different spots for us,” Niekamp said. “And he’s picked it up very well.”
That’s something Mizell has had trouble doing, not only as it relates to playing linebacker but to just being a college football player.
The same age as Kaufusi, Mizell, from Tallahassee, Fla., was headed to Florida State out of high school but failed to gain admittance. He sat out last year, found a spot at WSU and made the long road trip to Pullman late in the summer.
“He came in and thought he wasn’t going to have to work hard,” said senior Myron Beck. “He thought he was good enough that he would just show up and play.”
And show up was about all he did the first few weeks. Though his receiver-fast, 6-2, 225-pound frame stood out – positively – whenever he got on the field in scrimmages, his effort in practice stood out – negatively – as well.
He hit his biggest pothole the Tuesday of USC week. During a tackling drill, Mizell was given five chances to execute it with energy. He never did. He was kicked out of the drill.
“I wasn’t going to my full practice potential all through the year,” Mizell admitted this week. “I was doing things like spraining my ankle because I wasn’t going full speed and a lot of lineman were hitting me, pancaking me sometimes because I wasn’t doing what I’m supposed to do or doing it half-assed.
“They’re doing their job and if I’m not doing my job, that’s what’s supposed to happen.”
Asked if Mizell was close to being sent on a return trip to Florida at that point, Wulff took a while to answer.
“It’s been a lot of work for him, his coaches and his teammates,” Wulff answered. “We’ve all tried to give him chances to get better. It gets to a point you continue to help somebody and if they don’t take the help, you’ve got to move on.
“He’s tested everybody a little bit but I’ll give him this: The last two weeks of practice have been the best two weeks he’s had.”
Part of that goes back to that USC game. The Trojans’ road graders up front attacked Mizell whenever he was in the game and knocked him around a bit.
“It opened my eyes,” said Mizell, who has 14 tackles, including a sack, a fumble recovery and an interception return for 62 yards against Montana State. “It let me know what type of players and what type of intensity and tempo I was going to be seeing.
“That was a bunch of ballers out there. And if you’re a baller, you’re just going to have to ball harder.”
Mizell sent a text to Niekamp after the game that said, simply, “I get it.”
“He’s maturing,” Niekamp said. “The light bulb’s coming on.”
“I’m now just getting it,” Mizell agreed. “The last week I’ve been practicing hard. I’m just trying to turn it up and turn it up.”
He will have to this week. He and Kaufusi are being thrown to the wolves, facing an Oregon offense that plays at a frenetic pace, leads the nation in scoring, averages 331 yards a game on the ground and 569 yards in total offense.
“They’ve been putting us in hard situations so we get used to the tempo we’re going to be seeing this Saturday,” Mizell said.
“I’m totally nervous,” Kaufusi added. “But I’m also anxious to actually play.”
And see where they are on their career path.