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Experienced group leads Washington State’s defensive line

WSU’s Xavier Cooper returns to anchor Cougars’ front 3. (Tyler Tjomsland)
WSU’s Xavier Cooper returns to anchor Cougars’ front 3. (Tyler Tjomsland)

This is the fifth of eight position previews looking at WSU’s position-by-position prospects for the upcoming season. Today: Defensive line. Tomorrow: Offensive line.

PULLMAN – A season ago, Washington State only had four defensive linemen finish with double-digit tackles. The starters were counted on to play complete games and the fresh legs of talented freshmen that could have provided relief were not ready until late in the season, and by then they were unavailable.

“(The freshmen) started to come on last year,” coach Mike Leach said. “The thing is we already redshirted them and so we didn’t want to play them.”

But this year those youngsters are eligible to play, and to provide occasional rest to three veteran starters who have been hardened by a season of taking on Pac-12 offensive lines with the knowledge that nobody was there to help.

And what few backups the Cougars had weren’t deemed ready to play. Defensive line coach Joe Salave’a says that he will never jeopardize quality for the sake of substitution, and that “I refuse to buy into that just rotating people for the gymnastics of it.”

Fortunately for WSU then and now, that small corps forms one of the best units on the team.

“We’ve been able to play just three guys the last few years and they’re playing 80 to 90 percent of those reps,” Salave’a said. “You’re talking about 60-plus plays each week. But to their credit they battled and that’s a testament to their conditioning and what they’re doing in the offseason.”

Nose tackle Ioane Gauta is gone from last season’s four workhorses, but Kalafitoni Pole has seamlessly slid into the position, and with 15 more pounds than Gauta should be equally as effective at plugging running lanes.

Pole understands the need to groom a replacement, both for when he moves on and when he needs a breather. So he’s taken 6-2, 314-pound freshman Ngalu Tapa and other young players under his tutelage.

“I’m one of the veterans on the group and I know what needs to be done,” Pole said. “That helps me help the younger guys and let them know exactly what they should do and what they shouldn’t do.”

He’ll be able to take an occasional break this season thanks to the emergence of Robert Barber, a 6-3, 305-pound gap-stopper who saw action in four games last season.

Barber, a nose tackle from American Samoa, is even bigger than Pole and has learned to use his weight to collapse the pocket.

“You can see the intangibles because now they’ve gotten to spend a little more time in the weight room with (strength coach Jason) Loscalzo,” Salave’a said. “And they’ve got good linemen to look up to so it’s good to have that measuring stick because they have to either play up or they’re going to be left behind.”

Salave’a also cited tackle Daniel Ekuale as a player who will be counted on to take reps from the veterans.

“He’s one of the guys that we’ve been trying to push out there and give him the reps that he needs,” Salave’a said. “He’s continued to ask for more and as long as he continues to have that attitude he’s going to be one of the kids that we’re going to be leaning on to provide that depth.”

Destiny Vaeao began last season as the starting Buck linebacker, but eventually moved inside to end to make way for the emerging Kache Palacio.

And then there’s Xavier Cooper. Considered a potential mid-round NFL draft pick, Cooper has been named to various preseason watch lists for prestigious college football awards, such as the College Football Performance Awards trophy that former WSU safety Deone Bucannon won last season. He’s received preseason All-Conference recognition from Phil Steele Magazine and Athlon Sports. On Tuesday he was named to the Lott IMPACT Trophy watch list.

As a former mid-round draft pick himself, who spent nine seasons in the NFL, Salave’a knows what Cooper must go through to get there, and also what pitfalls that could prevent him – and the rest of the defensive line, both young and old – from maximizing his potential.

“Everybody has a shot,” Salave’a said. “He’s obviously a kid that has a lot of potential but I’ve also known some potential first-rounders who didn’t make it.”

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