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2009 Washington State Preview - Defense
Washington State SS Xavier Hicks
Washington State SS Xavier Hicks
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Jun 21, 2009


CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Washington State Cougar Defense

Washington State Cougars

Preview 2009 - Defense


- 2009 CFN Washington State Preview | 2009 Wazzu Offense
- 2009 Wazzu Defense | 2009 Wazzu Depth Chart
- 2008 Wazzu Preview | 2007 Wazzu Preview | 2006 Wazzu Preview
 

What you need to know: Washington State allowed 570 points in 2008, more than any school in Division I history. The Cougars were defenseless against the run, spotty versus the pass, and only able to create 13 turnovers in 13 games. Six starters are gone from that Hindenburg, and there’s no evidence that the situation will improve dramatically. It would help if the unit can avoid the injury bug, which bit it repeatedly throughout the season. Stopping the run, in particular, will be an on-going headache for the players and the staff. The strength of the unit will be the back seven, where linebackers Andy Mattingly and Louis Bland, and safeties Xavier Hicks and Chima Nwachukwu are fringe all-stars.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Xavier Hicks, 78
Sacks: Toby Turpin, 3
Interceptions: Xavier Hicks, 2

Star of the defense: Senior LB Andy Mattingly
Players who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Brandon Jones
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Louis Bland
Best pro prospect: Mattingly
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Mattingly, 2) Senior SS Xavier Hicks, 3) Bland
Strength of the defense: The linebackers, safeties
Weakness of the defense: Run defense, interior of the defensive line, pass defense, takeaways

Defensive Line


Projected Starters: The Cougars are putting out APBs for anyone who can make a difference up front after the line was abused on a weekly basis in 2008. Senior Kevin Kooyman is a player with the size and physical ability to make plays from the outside. At 6-6 and 246 pounds, he has the long arms and good burst to get around tackles and into the backfield. While limited by ankle problems throughout his career, he’s managed to start eight games over the last two seasons, making 41 stops, 7.5 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks.

Kooyman will be joined at defensive end by 6-2, 266-pound senior Jesse Feagin, a former JUCO transfer, who sat out all of last season. Still, the coaching staff believes he can be a playmaker in his final season, and his size on the outside is a plus for a team looking to become a lot more physical against the run.

Junior Toby Turpin is the veteran among the defensive tackles, having played in 16 games and starting four last season. Very quick off the snap at 6-4 and 284 pounds, he plays with a high level of energy and showed a knack for making penetration after getting into the lineup late in the year. Despite coming off the bench for much of the year, he still finished with 20 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.

One of the keys up front for the defense will be the health of 6-3, 288-pound junior Bernard Wolfgramm, who has dealt with persistent, nagging back problems. A disruptive and powerful tackle while at College of San Mateo (Calif.), he’s yet to make it on the field for the program and was limited throughout the spring session.

Projected Top Reserves: If Wolfgramm continues to be limited by his back, 6-0, 321-pound junior Josh Luapo is going to have an expanded role on the inside. Actually, his playing time might be substantial no matter what happens with Wolfgramm. A transfer from Los Angeles Harbor College, he has the strong base to become the run stuffer that the program desperately needs.

When Division II Western Washington dropped football earlier this year, 6-3, 239-pound junior Casey Hamlett opted to walk-on with the Cougars. So far, so good. He impressed in his first spring in Pullman, battling his way to a number of nice plays, and possibly earning a role as a situational pass rusher on third downs.

Watch Out For… Wolfgramm’s health. Hey, he was a four-star recruit two years ago, yet hasn’t been able to take a snap. He won’t single-handedly solve the Cougars’ interior woes, but if his back is fine, he’ll certainly help the situation.
Strength: The ends. It’s all relative to the surroundings, but Washington State has the potential to be feisty on the outside, provided Kooyman and Feagin can stay healthy for the entire season. Hamlett was a revelation in the spring, and redshirt freshman Adam Coerper was last year’s Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year. It’s not much, but it is a place to start.
Weakness: Stopping the run. At points last year, Washington State needed a mercy rule for its defensive line, which was routinely mauled and tossed around like a rag doll. The Cougs yielded 247 yards a game on the ground, which was more than any other team in the country.
Outlook: It’s true. It really does all begin in the trenches, which is why the defense, as a whole, is in such a state of disrepair. The Cougars simply don’t have the size or the manpower to win many battles at the line of scrimmage, so the linebackers and defensive backs will once again be far busier than they should be.
Rating: 5.5


Linebackers


Projected Starters: One of the few bright spots in last year’s disaster was the unlikely emergence of 5-10, 202-pound sophomore Louis Bland as a defensive playmaker. As a first-year freshman, he worked his way into the lineup in September and never left, starting the final nine games and finishing with 55 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and two sacks. While safety-sized, he has the outstanding speed and field vision, to weave through traffic and make plays from his station at weakside. Last year was sort of a blur for him, so he’ll be even more effective in Year 2.

In a wise offseason move, 6-4, 255-pound senior Andy Mattingly is being permanently moved from defensive end to strongside linebacker, where he’ll be better suited to wreak havoc. He was miscast a year ago, producing just 44 tackles, four tackles loss, and a sack. This is the same player, who a year earlier used his speed and instincts to rack up 91 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and eight sacks as an outside linebacker.

The task of replacing ultra-steady Greg Trent at middle linebacker belongs to unproven 6-1, 236-pound sophomore Alex Hoffman-Ellis. A transfer from Moorpark (Calif.) College, he sat out last season to get better acclimated with the system and the speed of the Pac-10. It appeared to pay off. He looked sharp in the spring, using his good wheels and range to cut off angles on running plays and make stops all over the field.  

Projected Top Reserves: After starting nine games and making 34 tackles a year ago, 5-11, 202-pound junior Myron Beck will need to get adjusted to coming off the bench as the weakside backup. Similar to Bland, he’s built like a safety and has the good athleticism to roam the field and lower his shoulder when he reaches his target.

Providing competition for Hoffman-Ellis in the middle will be 6-0, 224-pound sophomore Mike Ledgerwood, who lettered and had 14 tackles in his first year out of high school. While he can’t match Hoffman-Ellis’ explosiveness and range, he’s a sure-tackler, who’ll continue to enhance his role on this defense.

Watch Out For… Mattingly to approach his 2007 form. Finally back where he belongs on a full-time basis, he’ll be able to freelance and make far more stops than a year ago. Big, thick outside linebackers, who can rush the passer, don’t grow on trees, so he’ll have a chance to parlay this final season into an opportunity in the NFL.
Strength: Athleticism. By design, all of the Cougar linebackers move well laterally and have outstanding range. If it winds up being Bland, Mattingly, and Hoffman-Ellis, the defense will be rolling out three defenders, who can provide pressure on the blitz or drop back smoothly into coverage.
Weakness: Depth. After the top four linebackers, the situation thins out in a hurry. The return of senior Jason Stripling would sure help the situation, but, like so many of the Cougars, he’s never healthy long enough to make a sustained impact.
Outlook: By the program’s rather modest standards, this is about as good as it gets in Pullman. Mattingly is a legitimate Pac-10 defender, with a possible future in the NFL, and Bland is on his way to becoming a borderline all-star. If nothing else, these guys should get plenty of opportunities to clean up the trash and bolster the stat sheet.
Rating: 6.5


Secondary


Projected Starters: While it’s not going to conjure images of USC, the Washington State secondary is headed in the direction with the return of three starters and one key transfer from within the conference. Junior Brandon Jones has made his way north from Cal and quickly moved into the starting lineup at one cornerback spot. While only 5-9 and 178 pounds, it was evident in the spring that he has the hips and quickness to evolve into the team’s most reliable cover corner.

Jones’ partner in pass defense will be 5-11, 156-pound sophomore Tyrone Justin, who started six games and had 20 tackles and three pass breakups in his debut season. While still raw and in need of another 15 or 20 pounds of muscle, he shows good instincts when the ball is in the air and make sudden breaks on passes. If he continues to develop, he has the potential to be a four-year starter.

A solid collection of safeties is led by 6-0, 211-pound senior Xavier Hicks, the enforcer of the secondary. Hard-hitting and aggressive in run defense, he’s coming off his best season as a Cougar, making 78 stops, picking off two passes and breaking up five others. With extra game reps, he’s gotten more comfortable in his assignments and is out of position far less frequently.

While Hicks has strong safety covered, 5-11, 201-pound junior Chima Nwachukwu returns to reprise his role as the starting free safety. A regular from the moment he stepped foot on campus, he has started 19 games over the last two years and made 130 tackles. A terrific all-around athlete, he also has experience playing cornerback, a real luxury when it’s time to defend the pass.

Projected Top Reserves: If he can stay off the police blotter, 5-11, 194-pound sophomore Tyree Toomer is going to be the first safety off the sidelines as Hicks’ backup and likely successor. As a true freshman, he appeared in every game, making four starts, 34 tackles, four tackles for loss, and two sacks. He has a very bright career if he hasn’t already derailed it away from the field.

The reserve cornerbacks are extremely young and inexperienced. In fact, exiting spring, a pair of redshirt freshmen was behind Jones and Justin. Daniel Simmons began to distinguish himself in April, looking relatively comfortable in pass defense and using his 5-10, 187-pound frame to separate receivers from the ball.

Watch Out For… the results of off-field problems. Let’s see. Toomer was arrested on burglary charges and subsequently suspended upon further review. Devin Giles, a possible starter at cornerback, took a hiatus from spring to concentrate on academics. Simmons was suspended for part of spring. Reports had surfaced that Hicks was in trouble. Uhh, you get the theme here.
Strength: The Safeties. If Toomer is available, Washington State will boast three starter-quality safeties, with the experience and physical abilities to be playmakers. On this defense, you need defensive backs who can stick their noses into the action. Wazzu has them.
Weakness: Allowing the big play. Washington State didn’t allow a ton of yards through the air per game, but when passes were completed, it was often for a big gainer or a first down. The Cougars’ average of 13.3 yards a completion was among the highest in the nation.
Outlook: The Cougars sort of got a break in 2008 when opponents often ignored the secondary, choosing instead to run the ball at will. Still, they’ve got a decent enough amount of talent to survive in the Pac-10. It’ll help if Giles is available and Jones is as good as advertised because depth at corner is going to be an issue.
Rating: 6


Special Teams


Projected Starters: Although the special teams unit was as big a mess as the rest of the team, hope can be found in the return of both primary specialists. Junior Reid Forrest emerged as one of the Pac-10’s best—and busiest—punters, averaging 41.2 yards, while using an unconventional rollout style. He’s the main reason the Cougars were respectable in net punting.

Junior Nico Grasu emerged unexpectedly from a pack of mediocrity to take over as the primary placekicker. In his first season out of Moorpark (Calif.) Junior College, he connected on 9-of-13 field goals, including the game-winner in the Apple Cup. He’ll also be a candidate to handle kickoffs.

Handling kickoff returns will be a pair of Cal transfers, juniors James Montgomery and Brandon Jones. On punts, sophomore Kevin Norrell came out of spring with an edge on sophomore Tyrone Justin. Senior Chantz Staden, who was eighth in the Pac-10 a year ago, will also get back into the mix once he returns from an injury.

Watch Out For… Grasu’s development. After providing some stability to a messy situation at placekicker, he’s hoping to be even more consistent in this second season. Although he won’t have many pressure kicks on this team, he could get a much of scoring opportunities when drives stall deep in the red zone.
Strength: Forrest. He’s got top billing on special teams, and quite frankly, is one of the most consistent players on the squad. He does a good job of preventing big returns and assisting a Cougar defense that’ll take all the help it can get.
Weakness: The return game. For the second straight year, the Cougars were downright miserable in the return game, finishing 117th nationally on punts and 64th on kickoffs. If the Montgomery and Jones can’t provide immediate help, it’ll be the same story again this fall.
Outlook: Yeah, there are problems here, but all things are relative. Washington State has actually come a long way in a year, solidifying the kicking game with Forrest and Grasu, and adding Montgomery and Jones to the return game.
Rating: 5.5