LEWISTON – When Kalafitoni Pole and Xavier Cooper were around, it was certainly possible to win a football game against Washington State by running the ball.
But those two defensive linemen didn’t make it easy.
The Cougars ranked No. 5 in the Pac-12 last year in rushing defense and No. 8 in yards allowed per rush. When WSU’s defense stepped up and kept the Cougars in games – beating Utah on the road, keeping it close against Oregon – it was against teams that rushed the ball frequently.
Cooper, Pole and their 59 combined collegiate starts are now in the NFL. Cooper is with the Browns as a fourth-round draft pick and Pole in camp with the Bengals as an undrafted free agent.
Replacing them will be one of WSU’s most important challenges this season as the defense tries to improve on last year’s bleak performance. Frankly, the Cougars don’t have any player that is likely to replace Cooper or Pole. Defensive line coach Joe Salave’a says it would be unfair to expect anybody to do it.
But Salave’a also says the Cougars won’t need any individual to play at that level, because WSU now has a group of linemen that can rotate in throughout the game and equal or exceed the production of the departed players.
“Right now we have more than just one guy, and that’s the best thing that I see,” Salave’a said. “We’ve finally got some guys, and when I’m talking about some guys, some Pac-12-quality guys,” he continued. “That changes the dynamic. Now it’s just trying to create the combination and the competition among these guys so they can compete a little bit.”
That depth without supremacy means that a number of players could ascend to a starting role and the competition to do so will be among the fiercest of any positions at WSU’s preseason camp in Lewiston.
The competition to replace Pole at nose guard, in many respects the single most pivotal position on the defense in terms of defending the run, will be particularly noteworthy. Robert Barber is currently ahead of Daniel Ekuale, a smaller but more aggressive and more explosive player, but his advantage is minute and potentially fleeting.
Salave’a is reticent to sub in subpar players merely to rest the starters, and Pole rarely came off the field. There is a thought, however, that playing sparingly while learning from an effective upperclassman, staying healthy and staying in the weight room may better prepare younger players for success down the road.
“(Pole) was like a big brother to me and Robert,” Ekuale said. “He taught us a lot of technique and all the stuff he uses. We’ve just got to come out on the field and utilize that stuff. Me and Robert are just going after it every day. All of our defensive line unit learned from those guys who left.”
Darryl Paulo, who started three games last season, appears to be the current starter at defensive end. But Hercules Mata’afa is one of the team’s strongest players and has been one of its most impressive pass rushers since he arrived at WSU last fall.
“The young players are really good and they’re very talented,” Paulo said. “I like the challenge they bring to the table. It keeps me on my toes and keeps me on the edge.”
That the younger players are pushing Cooper and Pole’s replacements to be more like their predecessors is good for the Cougars. That they’re able to contribute this year so Barber, Ekuale and Paulo won’t need to be as good as Cooper and Pole for the team to be successful is even better.
“Those guys are definitely going to be missed but it’s not going to be any different,” Paulo said. “We’re going to play with the same intensity and show up every week and play our hardest.”