PULLMAN – The largest – and some say the strongest – player on Washington State’s defense has not played a snap in a game this season, nor will he.
At 6-foot-2, 314 pounds Ngalu Tapa is a load in the best way and he makes life difficult for opposing offensive linemen once a week, pushing them back so fast they occasionally sack their own quarterback. But only the ones on his team.
The names of Washington State’s Thursday night stars are likely foreign to the casual fan of Cougars football. If you’ve heard of Keith Harrington or Hercules Mata’afa then you probably supplement weekly viewings of the team’s games with online practice reports, recruiting coverage or partake in message board chatter.
But keep those names in the back of your head because the players that are dominating on Thursday nights are likely foreshadowing future playmaking roles for WSU on Saturdays.
The moniker is Thursday Night Football, although the Cougars aren’t opposed to holding the underclassmen scrimmages on other days when the schedule dictates they do. During bye weeks, such as this one, the Cougars will hold two or three such practices.
The weekly scrimmages give players that are young, redshirting or otherwise unlikely to compete in the upcoming Saturday game a chance to get some action without waiting until they can actually take the field.
The plays are live and some of the biggest hits at Martin Stadium each year come courtesy of zealous underclassmen looking to impress teammates and coaches.
David Bucannon occasionally makes a jarring hit reminiscent of his older brother, Deone, an All-American last season, which always draws cries of “Baby Buck!” from the regular players that stay and watch.
Wide receiver Barry Ware has shown himself to be a deep threat that can also make plays with the ball in his hands, and linebacker Chandler Leniu regularly shows why he was recruited by a number of prominent schools, generating power quickly from his hips to flatten offensive players.
Cornerback Sebastian LaRue plays well and coach Mike Leach says that he would be a boon to the Cougars on Saturdays if he were not required to sit out a season by the NCAA after transferring from Texas A&M.
Tapa also is likely physically able to compete in Pac-12 football games, but not for as long as the coaches would like.
“The biggest thing is he’s got to get in shape,” Leach said. “He’s not in shape yet. He’s got a quick first step and he’s explosive but we’ve got to get him in shape.”
“Sam” linebacker Drew Griffin has regularly pulled down interceptions in recent weeks, and Harrington has been switched from receiver to running back after impressing the coaches with his rushing prowess during scrimmages.
“They’re valuable reps and they give the young guys an opportunity to showcase their progress,” said defensive line coach Joe Salave’a.
The defense typically brings a heavy rush and it often overpowers WSU’s young offensive linemen, whose technique has not yet caught up to the overpowering strength of their defensive counterparts.
Mata’afa has been the most disruptive pass-rusher – and arguably the most dominant player – getting at least one sack a week and often using his superior strength and speed to get into the offensive backfield so early and often the quarterbacks and receivers aren’t able to get sufficient work in.
The Hawaiian is listed at 6-2, 225 pounds but looks much bigger. According to Leach, that’s because he probably is.
“He’s actually gotten bigger,” Leach explained. “He’s getting bigger as the year goes on but he’s very fast, very explosive, great leverage guy.”
Some of the players mentioned have improved to the point where the Cougars could use their help in games. But it would be a pity to lose a year of Tapa or Leniu so that they could play a few snaps in the final two games.
So those players will continue to sit out and their playmaking will be limited to the relative anonymity of Thursday’s scrimmages, until next year.