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Great expectations

Wed., Aug. 17, 2011

Washington State Cougars defensive end Travis Long, left, should have plenty of sack opportunities this season after position change. (Dan Pelle)
Washington State Cougars defensive end Travis Long, left, should have plenty of sack opportunities this season after position change. (Dan Pelle)

Defensive line has chance to be special

This is the fifth of eight position previews of Washington State University’s 2011 football team. Today: Defensive line. Thursday: Linebackers.

PULLMAN – There are not usually many surprises in the first week of preseason football camp.

How could there be? There is winter conditioning, spring practice, summer workouts between seasons. By the time camp starts, coaches have a good idea of the players’ potential.

But every once in a while, a player will make huge strides. Or a group will show more than what was expected. Or, as in the case of Washington State’s defensive line this season, both.

“We have a lot of D-linemen right now,” junior defensive end Travis Long said Tuesday. “We have a lot of depth. We’re four men deep and we haven’t had that ever before, not even in fall camp.”

There were times the past three years the Cougars had trouble finding four defensive linemen to put on the field at one time, a big reason why WSU has been 119th, 117th and 115th – out of some 120 NCAA FBS schools – against the run.

Don’t expect that again.

“We’re much, much improved,” Long said.

The depth comes in the form of a couple of junior college transfer ends (Ian Knight and Lenard Williams), a redshirt freshman tackle (Toni Pole), a handful of players with experience (Long, Anthony Laurenzi, Brandon Rankin, Justin Clayton, Jordan Pu’u Robinson) and one returner who has rocketed up the depth chart.

That would be Adam Coerper, a redshirt junior who has played in all of two games in three years, mainly because of a series of injuries.

“He does have the prototypical attributes,” said veteran assistant coach Todd Howard, in his first year with WSU. “He has the size, he has the strength. He’s been often injured, but he has to adhere to what I’m teaching him.

“He’s a redshirt junior, so it’s time. The light does come on.”

Coerper has been running with the first team at left end much of camp after not being listed on the depth chart coming in. His ascension has allowed Howard to move Long, twice Pac-10 honorable mention, to the right side, where he’ll rush on most quarterbacks’ blind side.

“Honestly, for me I expect double-digit sacks,” Long said of his goal this season.

He’s had seven in two years mainly playing the strong side – against a tight end – and dealing with double teams.

A lack of depth also meant Long has played as many as 90 plays in a game during his career. But with more capable bodies, less plays should translate into more production. That’s the theory, anyway.

“If you’re going to be in the game, you’re going 100 percent,” Long said, relaying Howard’s philosophy. “If you can only go two plays 100 percent, then go two plays and we’ll get you out of there. I would rather have a fresh guy in there than you going 80 percent.”

Howard, who came to WSU after stints at UCLA and in the NFL, has set simple goals for his group.

“We’re not going to be the biggest, we’re not going to be the fastest,” he said. “But you know what? We can play the smartest. If you get beat on a play, get beat because the guys is faster than you or stronger than you, not because you made a mental error or your technique was wrong.”

And that simple message is getting through.

“He wants us to be dominant players and make plays, but he’ll take guys who are break-even players, in their gap, doing what they are supposed to do,” Long said.

Howard doesn’t have a choice.

“We still have three more weeks before our first game and I anticipate we’ll be ready up front,” he said. “Right now, I’m trying to see what guys do well and at what position we can use them so they can show us their talent. You can’t talk about what you don’t have. They’re here now.”

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