LEWISTON – The earliest and most interesting position change so far in Washington State’s preseason football camp spawned from a conversation two weeks ago between defensive coordinator Mike Breske and WSU strength and conditioning coach Jason Loscalzo.
The topic: Based upon past performance and offseason conditioning, which four players would compose the best possible defensive front?
The first three answers were obvious. There’s Ioane Gauta, a 285-pound senior nose tackle who started every game last season. And Toni Pole, an experienced junior tackle who made that game-turning interception in last season’s Apple Cup. Also, Xavier Cooper, a redshirt sophomore who started nine games in 2012.
And at the outside, “buck” linebacker spot? Destiny Vaeao, the 6-foot-4, 290-pound sophomore who recorded five tackles in 10 games played on the defensive line as a freshman last season.
Injury forced him to miss all of spring practice. But Breske plans to make the most of Vaeao’s time now that he’s back.
“He’s one of them,” Breske said. “And we looked at the big picture of Coop and Toni, and we just decided that Destiny, from high school, is a tight end, is athletic, and we’re going to work him in at our buck position so we can get big. He’s good off the edge, he can drop (into coverage) and he’s learning that, but he’s been very, very positive in the offseason.”
So there was Vaeao, working with the No. 1 defense on Friday and Saturday, getting the feel for a position most assumed would be occupied by either sophomore Kache Palacio or junior Ivan McLennan.
Logan Mayes, a junior, appeared to be the heir to that spot after he backed up senior Travis Long there last season. But Mayes has apparently been moved to defensive end full time, and Vaeao, who politely declined to be interviewed until next week, now appears to be the frontrunner at a spot that requires both pass-rushing acumen as well as coverage skills.
His size is a plus.
“As we get closer to gameplan, we’ll decide who fits what position best,” said linebackers coach Ken Wilson. “But we feel like (Vaeao) can give us some things that maybe some of the other guys can’t in certain situations, and give us a bigger guy that can jump into a stance or stand up or drop or blitz, and that’s an attractive position in a 3-4, multiple scheme.
“A big guy like that who can drop into a three-point stance is a different animal for everybody.”
Coach Mike Leach singled out Vaeao as one of the top performers on Friday’s opening day of camp, and Breske said the sophomore from Pago Pago, American Samoa, is adapting to his new position “great. He’s a team player. He’ll do whatever we’ve got to do to make our defensive unit better.”
The rest of WSU’s linebacking spots are so far occupied by familiar faces – Darryl Monroe and Justin Sagote up the middle, with Cyrus Coen outside at the “sam” position.
Their coach, Wilson, is in his first camp with the Cougars. He was hired in February to replace Jeff Choate.
“We’ve got 29 days here to see which teams can get their guys better than everybody else, so they’re working at it,” Wilson said of his position group. “I think they want to be good. That’s half the battle. There’s a change in the personality around here from just the work ethic and competition. You can see it just building, and hopefully we can capitalize off that and show them some success and get it going.”
With the offense running about one-third of its offensive package on Saturday – it ran only vertical routes on Friday – there were a few more highlights for that group during 7-on-7 and team session, such as Robert Lewis’ nifty grab over safety Taylor Taliulu and Rickey Galvin’s touchdown catch in the back corner of the end zone.
But linebacker Tana Pritchard and Eric Oertel each had interceptions, and it was the offense who performed up-downs – only a handful – to cap the day.