A look at who will be leading Cougars in 2018: Part 3

WSU will rely on youth to replace players on defensive line this year



Senior wide receiver Kyle Sweet prepares to catch a pass during a spring practice at Martin Stadium.

JACKSON GARDNER, Evergreen reporter

Still going by the name of Speed D under the new command of Defensive Coordinator Tracy Claeys, the WSU defense has several starting spots that need to be filled as we look ahead to next season.

This week we will focus entirely on the defensive line, in part due to the odd-numbered position groups on the defense, but also because the Cougars lost many from their 2017 defensive front.

While the question is who will replace the athletes who are leaving, it is also important to consider how WSU will organize the defensive line.

Gone are the days where a defense features four defensive linemen who dominate all the snaps. In a newer age of football, the grind that comes with playing in the trenches will require the services of two to three different rotational guys for each position.

Here is a breakdown of the WSU defensive line by the exterior and interior positions.


Exterior linemen:

At the top of the list for returning exterior lineman is redshirt junior Nnamdi Oguayo, who landed four sacks while holding his own in the run-game in 2017.

He is the only returning starter from the 2017 defensive line. Oguayo has added some extra weight this offseason and is poised to take on a higher volume of snaps and produce bigger numbers in 2018.

Who will fit behind Oguayo remains to be seen. His second stringer from last year, junior Derek Moore, has taken his hand out of the dirt to play rush linebacker.

A player who could fill the backup spot at one position on the defensive line is redshirt freshman Dallas Hobbs.

Hobbs’ athleticism and body mold perfectly into a few different positions, but like many freshmen, he needs to improve in the technical aspects of the game: his footwork, his hand-fighting and keeping his body low.

The rush linebacker position loses both its starter and second stringer from 2017, but there are plenty of viable candidates to fill the position. Two guys who have dabbled with the rush linebacker positions but are now officially listed are senior Logan Tago and Moore.

In terms of who possesses the athleticism and physicality required to play the rush linebacker position, Tago has all the qualifications. In order for him to crack the starting lineup, however, there is a serious mental block he needs to overcome.

Last year, Tago showed up in various packages, but mainly sat behind Hercules Mata’afa and served as a fill-in for the tackle position, where he didn’t record a sack all season. Now at the rush linebacker position, hopefully Tago can use his speed more to his advantage and beat opposing offensive tackles around the edge.

Perhaps another option would be Moore or redshirt sophomore Mason Vinyard. Between the two of them, they only produced one and a half sacks and 12 total tackles in 2017, but both played in very limited roles.

With Vinyard, for what you gain in the pass rush, you lose in stopping the run. At this point in his career, he is fairly one-dimensional, which will probably make him a situational pass rusher. Because of Moore’s versatility and experience, he is more likely to contest Tago for the starting job at rush linebacker, but I wouldn’t rule any of them out of the spot at this point.

Verdict: Oguayo will hold down the defensive end position while Tago, Moore and Vinyard will play rush linebacker by committee until one of them establishes himself as the better of the three in the fall.


Interior linemen:

It gets a little trickier for WSU’s interior. Beyond the loss of Mata’afa, I don’t think most Cougar fans realize what they lost in Daniel Ekuale and Garrett McBroom.

Yes, Mata’afa will be getting drafted in the NFL this month, but Ekuale and McBroom filled the gaps between the tackles in 2017 that allowed Mata’afa and others to make plays. The Cougars will need a host of linemen to emulate their value.

No one will replace Mata’afa’s pass rush production — it simply won’t be done by anyone on the Cougars’ roster. However, there are a few who, by committee, could take over Mata’afa’s role and do even better in stopping the run.

Redshirt senior Nick Begg, who relies more on fundamentals, won’t play the position with the same flash, but will be a more efficient run-stopper than Mata’afa. He will most likely take the starting spot, but I expect a number of guys to rotate in at the defensive tackle position as well.

If Hobbs can’t find snaps at defensive end, a switch to defensive tackle would make a lot of sense. His long reach would give him an advantage over shorter guards, as well as blocking the opposing quarterback’s vision.

At the nose tackle position, there are only fresh faces to choose from. The two nose tackles that have the ability to clog holes like Ekuale and McBroom are junior transfer Jonathan Lolohea and redshirt freshman and walk-on Jesus Echevarria.

Both Lolohea and Echevarria play with high motors, but need to refine their games to be efficient run-stoppers like their predecessors.

Verdict: Defensive Line Coach Jeff Phelps will need to wait and see what he gets with his new recruits in the fall. For now, Begg is the only reliable guy Cougar fans can look for up the middle.