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Thursday, July 9, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Cougars change tactics on defensive line

Washington State defensive end Michael Bock said the Cougars have switched their approach this season. (Dan Pelle)
Washington State defensive end Michael Bock said the Cougars have switched their approach this season. (Dan Pelle)

PULLMAN – Matthew Bock is nothing if not observant.

So this was the Washington State defensive lineman’s first assessment of Joe Salave’a, his new position coach: “He’s huge.”

And then: “When you first see him, you’re like, ‘Well, all right. This guy’s not going to be a technique guy. He’s going to want to knock people in the mouth and run around.’”

He was right.

If Salave’a has his way, the Cougars’ defensive line will not put any particular effort this season into evading blocks or sneaking into the backfield.

They want to get there via blunt force, the preferred tactic of their been-there-before position coach.

“I like to beat up people,” said Salave’a, who played defensive tackle in the NFL at 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds. “So my whole deal is more of a one-on-one kind of deal, so a lot of our drills’ emphasis (is) hands and leverage and flat backs, and really just harnessing the physical aspect.”

Bock said it’s a different approach than WSU took last year, when the Cougars were more technique-based.

That’s fitting, considering the reconstruction of WSU’s defense under new coordinator Mike Breske, who employs a base 3-4 formation that features three defensive linemen and a hybrid linebacker position known as the “buck.”

That means the Cougars’ best defensive lineman from a season ago – senior Travis Long, a Spokane native who led the team with four sacks last year – is technically no longer with the group, as he occupies the buck spot and is now, by definition, a linebacker.

And they lost a potential starter just before camp when senior Anthony Laurenzi was dismissed from the team following his arrest for allegedly shoplifting a pair of headphones from Wal-Mart.

So WSU’s new-look defensive line will be anchored by new faces, too. Xavier Cooper, a redshirt freshman, appears the leader for one of the starting tackle jobs. Toni Pole, a redshirt sophomore who appeared in 10 games last season, might have to share time at nose tackle with junior college transfer Ioane Gauta (6-3, 305 pounds), though Salave’a said Pole’s ability to play inside or outside is an added luxury that other players might not provide.

Redshirt senior Steven Hoffart, along with Bock, a redshirt junior, have seen the bulk of the reps with the No. 1 defense during camp – along with Gauta – as Cooper and Pole recover from undisclosed injuries.

“I get to learn how to play with other guys like Travis and whatnot, and play with the starters and get a feel for how they play the game and how they want to do things and how I want to do things,” Hoffart said.

“(Salave’a) wants to play physical and he wants to play fast. That’s the only way to play defense in my mind. I really like his style and he’s a great coach.”

Adding to WSU’s depth are seniors Adam Coerper and Lenard Williams, plus 6-4, 270-pound freshman Destiny Vaeao.

Salave’a said he is particularly pleased with the progression of players such as Hoffart and Bock.

“The more reps they get, the better they’re getting at developing their craft,” Salave’a said. “Sky’s the limit with those guys. We’ve just got to make sure they get the amount that they need every day, so hopefully by the end of this camp they’ll be better players now than they were four years, three years ago. Because from spring up to now, it’s like day and night. So that’s got to be contagious throughout our whole crew.”

Salave’a did note that because Breske will use multiple defensive fronts, there will be opportunities and roles for those players who aren’t built to mash facemasks with offensive linemen all day.

But there’s certainly nothing wrong with the latter.

“I think it’s a good marriage, but I believe when all is said and done, football is football,” Salave’a said. “I’ve got to slap that guy in front of me before he slaps me. If he slaps me once, I’ve got to get him 10 times.”

Notes: WSU conducted a brief, 35-or-so-play scrimmage at the end of its Thursday practice. Jeff Tuel completed 7 of 12 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown, and Connor Halliday completed 6 of 10 passes for 66 yards, a touchdown and an interception. … The scrimmage was highlighted by a 70-yard touchdown pass thrown by Tuel to freshman receiver Gabe Marks, who juked and weaved his way down the left sideline for the score.

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