This is the second of eight previews looking at WSU’s position-by-position prospects for the upcoming season.
Today: Linebackers. Tuesday: D-line.
PULLMAN – Washington State’s veteran-laden linebacker corps presents an enviable dilemma to assistant coaches Ken Wilson and Roy Manning: Experience or exceptional athletic ability?
The coaches will choose experience – it won’t be a difficult choice. Heady returning starters Jeremiah Allison and Peyton Pelluer will see the majority of defensive snaps at the Will and Mike inside linebacker positions, respectively.
At the outside rush linebacker position, Kache Palacio and Ivan McLennan will seek to improve on their combined 11 sacks from last season. The three starters and McLennan have played well throughout the preseason and are clearly WSU’s best options for 2015.
“I would like to play everybody, have roles for all those guys, but if I can’t trust them they won’t be out there,” Wilson said.
The starters have also emerged as defensive leaders, ratcheting up the intensity in practice to the point where the coaches seem to spend as much time reminding defenders that the quarterbacks are off-limits as they do pumping them up.
“At least it’s nothing on effort or nothing on anything bad,” Allison said. “It’s ‘Stay off our quarterback,’ but we’re going to get after the quarterback.”
But after two successful cycles of recruiting linebackers, the Cougars have a group of young backups whose athletic abilities are frequently superior to those of the starters.
McLennan and Palacio, for example, are surely the most athletic linebackers returning off last year’s defense. But Dylan Hanser, a sophomore from Billings, has better foot speed than either.
And he’s still growing into his 6-foot-4, 230-pound body, having put on 16 pounds in the last year.
“He looks like a different person,” Manning said. “He made some weight gains, strength gains, he did a great job all summer.”
Hanser won’t recognize and react to plays as quickly as the two veterans ahead of him. But on plays when the rush linebacker has a clear shot at the opposing quarterback, it will be tough not to look at the sophomore on the sideline and think that he could get home the quickest.
Freshman Logan Tago is among the most tantalizing athletes on the team – he was a bully during WSU’s first scrimmage, collecting four sacks. But the coaches aren’t even sure which position he will ultimately play, or if he will even stay on defense.
Redshirt freshman Chandler Leniu and sophomore Frankie Luvu bring size and an ability to punish ballcarriers at inside linebacker. Though Wilson would like to see Leniu play at about 250 pounds (he’s listed at 261) and Luvu needs to improve in pass coverage, their ability to swiftly punish opponents in the middle of the field may trump that of the starter.
“He’s got a big frame,” said Wilson of Leniu. “He’s fully muscled up so if we can keep him moving fast, we’ll be in good shape.”
How versatile is Luvu? Last year he played everything from inside linebacker to Buck – similar to the rush linebacker position – and even punted for the Cougars during spring practices.
A smidgeon of knowledge to go with that natural ability could give Cougars a bevy of options to adapt to opposing offenses, or simply to keep the starters fresh.
“I’d like to give (Allison and Pelluer) some rest,” said Wilson, who coaches the inside linebackers. “We’d like to have a lot of different bodies, keep them fresh. It’s a long season, and the more bodies we can get out there, the more depth out there, the better off we’ll be in the end.”
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