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Attrition may have changed the appearance of Washington State’s defensive line, but not the mindset

PULLMAN – By the time they arrive in Laramie, Wyoming, on Aug. 31, the Washington State Cougars will have spent upward of 70 hours laboring away on hot – and sometimes hazy – practice fields in Idaho and Washington.

Do the math and it amounts to thousands upon thousands of developmental reps for each position group. Seemingly an infinite amount of preparation time and maybe still not enough for the Cougars’ embattled defensive line.

This is the time of the year teams devote to establishing depth and finding concrete solutions at every spot on the depth chart. But Jeff Phelps is dealing with the same problem of a puzzle-builder who keeps losing track of the small cardboard pieces.

Even though he’s lost three pieces – one permanently and two others for the foreseeable future – the second-year defensive line coach has no choice but to continue building his puzzle.

“The formula stays the same as it’s always been and next man up mentality,” Phelps said Wednesday. “We’ve got enough able bodies to do what we need to do and so it’s business as usual, really.”

A day after the 2017 Holiday Bowl, it wouldn’t have been totally misguided to think the defensive line could emerge as one of the Cougars’ strongest position groups in 2018.

All-American defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa hadn’t tossed his named into the NFL Draft pool yet and was poised to return as one of the country’s standout pass-rushers. The Cougars were excited about the gradual development of high-motored defensive end Nnamdi Oguayo and the loss of nose tackle Daniel Ekuale was somewhat mitigated by the addition of Jonathan “Pono” Lolohea, a coveted three-star junior college transfer who’d grabbed the attention of at least 10 other Power Five schools before landing on the Cougars. Plus returning junior defensive end Derek Moore was a nice depth piece behind Oguayo.

Had you taken a stab at the depth chart on Dec. 29, Mata’afa (DT), Oguayo (DE) and Lolohea (NT) would have probably been easy picks at D-line. A starting front of Nick Begg (DT), Taylor Comfort (NT) and Will Rodgers III (DE) would have drawn odds of 1,000/1 from Las Vegas.

Slowly but surely, the first trio began to morph into the second one just three days after the Holiday Bowl when Mata’afa made an early leap to the NFL, opening up the first vacancy on the defensive line.

Comfort, at the time still a walk-on, outplayed Lolohea during spring camp – a surprise given the transfer’s sparkling recruiting profile – and remained the top choice at nose tackle through the first two weeks of camp. Lolohea left the football program early last week, 18 days shy of the season opener.

Underscoring the unit’s adversity, Oguayo and Moore both vanished from the practice field less than a week into preseason camp. Mike Leach stated on Aug. 10 the Cougars “expect to see them shortly,” but neither participated in Tuesday’s practice – the last one media members and fans were able to observe – and the coach hasn’t offered any other details on their absence.

That’s a lot for a group to endure over the course of 12 games, let alone before the season opener, but Phelps said the attrition hasn’t altered his unit’s demeanor.

“To be honest, it hasn’t come up in our meeting room,” Phelps said. “You move on and you worry about the guys that are here and that’s all you can do. You kind of leave it at that.”

The guys who are still around – and active – feel confident there’s enough depth to go around.

“There’s guys all over, from end, nose, tackle – we’ve got good guys backing up each one of us,” Begg said. “And I trust everyone on our D-line to rotate in and get the job done right now. And even some of the guys that are down on scout team, I know that if they end up getting the call up to come play defense with us, they’d be able to contribute.”

It still doesn’t change the fact the group is largely unproven – and won’t be until WSU’s first defensive series at Wyoming.

Together, the projected starters registered only nine tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack last season. Seven of the tackles, both TFLs and the sack belonged to Begg, a senior who didn’t become a part of the D-line rotation until last year. Rodgers III and Comfort have special teams experience, but they’ll be playing their first meaningful defensive downs this season.

“I have faith in our D-line, for sure,” Begg said.

Tago, a senior who’s played in 33 games, could be considered the group’s fourth starter – and he’s seen time at just about every level of defense as a former nickel safety and linebacker. But at 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, he probably isn’t capable of spelling Comfort at nose tackle, where the depth is paper-thin after Lolohea’s abrupt exit.

The Cougars have been training Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei, a junior college defensive end, at the position and Leach has emphasized the importance of carving out a role for the former rugby player, who’s “a real strong, explosive guy” the coach said.

“His size helps him and how quick he is,” Begg said. “He’s really quick off the line and he’s getting little things about our defense, how we run certain plays. … I think once he gets the experience, and I think this mock week will help him, this experience will help him gradually this season to get used to other offenses.”