LB’s to Be “Strength” in Breske’s System
There’s a storm brewing in the Palouse. Fall camp is upon us, and swords are ready to be swung.
The Washington State Cougars football season is merely weeks away, so stock the beer cooler and power up the big screen, or find a way to the newly renovated Martin Stadium and be ready to shake those keys!
While Mike Leach and his Air-Raid offense are undoubtedly the most anticipated additions to the Cougar program, Leach’s new favorite toys (Jeff Tuel and Marquess Wilson) cannot remain on the field the entire game.
Enter Mike Breske.
Breske’s system and Leach’s offense seem to be a match made in heaven. Leach wants the ball in his quarterback’s hands, and Breske does what he can to provide that.
For the Montana Grizzlies, Breske brought an aggressive 3-4 scheme that boasted a solid secondary with positive results in both pass yards allowed (190 YPG) and interceptions (19). Impressive considering his system puts a great amount of trust in his defensive backs, often leaving them stranded on islands with one-on-one coverage.
Meanwhile the defensive linemen tend to be mainly space fillers, absorbing tackles and guards like a sponge. The three down lineman will look to plug gaps, either containing the ball carrier or creating pass-rushing lanes.
Finally, the linebackers will reportedly be the “strength” of the Cougar defense, according to Breske. This is difficult to comprehend, considering the Cougars lost all three of their starters from last season.
However, in Breske’s system the linebackers are either filling running lanes or matching up with the tight end and/or slot receiver. This grants multiple opportunities for the linebackers to freely roam the field, being put into positions to make plays.
Will Breske’s 3-4 scheme transfer over from FCS to FBS? Do the Cougars have the personnel to fit the system?
Only time will tell, but here are five players that will need to make an impact for the Cougar defense to take that next step.
Travis Long – Senior 6-4, 245 lbs. LB/DE
The closest to a household name on the Cougar defense is Travis Long. As a defensive end, Long was fifth in the Pac-12 with 12.0 tackles-for-loss, named to the Second-Team All-Pac-12 and was anointed WSU’s Defensive Lineman of the Year.
After three solid years of rushing the passer under his belt, Long is going to be switching to the “Buck” position for his senior year. The switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 really changes the position of the defensive end. The position requires more size, much like that of a defensive tackle.
In this scenario, Long will be a defensive end/linebacker hybrid. This brings questioning of Long’s ability to excel as a stand-up outside linebacker.
Fortunately, Travis remains optimistic, “Right when they came in, about a week or two after, they told me they wanted me to make the move and I was totally fine with it,” Long said.
“I’d done some of that stuff in the past so I didn’t think it would be too hard of a transition.”
Considering Breske’s claims that his system will be multiple, Long will have flexibility to both stand or put his hand in the ground on both sides of the field. That’s a big boy roaming the field, something the opposing quarterback may not be too happy to see from across the line.
Long played linebacker in a 4-3 system in high school, so he has some knowledge of the technique required. Let’s hope he can make the smooth transition and help put that ball back in Tuel’s hands.
Chester Su’a – Sophomore 6-1, 226 lbs. LB
With the success of the linebackers being such a necessity for Breske’s scheme, Chester Su’a MUST be an impact player for the Cougar defense. A RB/LB in high school, Su’a pledged Crimson and Gray before being ranked by Scout.com or Rivals.
Soon afterward, Su’a received a 4-star rank by Scout.com and was named the 18th linebacker in the nation. A very high ranking indeed for a young man that flew under the radar for so long.
He only started four games last season, recording 22 tackles (11 of which were in the Apple Cup), yet he did appear in all 12 games. A small sample size, but posting 11 tackles in the final game of the season shows promise.
When discussing Su’a, the common topics brought up are his athleticism and strength. With a 4.5 40-yard-dash time on his resume, his potential at the linebacker position is uncanny.
Breske feels the same way, “Chester Su’a, a WIL linebacker…a very athletic linebacker, got a lot out of him.
Great surprise, and again, we’re young at the linebacker position and these are the guys that are going to have to play for us and they’re athletic.”
The WIL linebacker plays on the weak-side, and they have an array of responsibilities. They range from covering the slot receiver, covering the tight-end, covering the edge and keeping the running back from getting outside, etc.
The athleticism needed for these duties is right up Su’a’s alley.
It is for this reason his immense impact on the Cougar defense in 2012 is not only reasonable, but likely.
Deone Bucannon – Junior 6-1, 192 lbs. Safety
For two years Deone Bucannon (pronounced DAY-OWN, apparently) has rattled the stands in Martin Stadium with his tackling ability.
A true strong safety, Bucannon was second on the team with 80 tackles in 2011, including 58 solo (Fifth in the Pac-12). Not quite the production you hope for coming from your safety, but nonetheless an impressive individual stat line.
His ability to get to the ball carrier and bring him down has never been an issue. His coverage ability has shown glimpses of mediocrity, but he still managed to intercept three passes last season (second on the team).
As previously stated, the secondary has the most pressure on them in this new system. They are often stranded in one-on-one coverage, and left to fend for themselves on islands so often they may begin communicating with volleyballs named Wilson.
However, with the aggressive blitz packages at Breske’s disposal, the opportunities will arise for big plays. Fortunately, Bucannon thrives in the big play category, and will look to do so even more in his junior season.
If he can make the less glorious, every-down coverage plays necessary for man-to-man coverage to succeed, he could improve his already impressive draft stock.
Damante Horton – Junior 5-10, 175 lbs. CB
The WSU secondary was porous last season, there is no way around it.
Yet, along with Bucannon, Horton showed flashes of brilliance. One instance in particular was the opening drive for the Stanford Cardinals when they came to Pullman last season.
On the second snap of the game, future first-overall-pick Andrew Luck sailed a pass attempt deep to junior Jamal Rashad. He had Rashad open by a few steps but left a little too much air under the ball, giving time for Damante Horton to recover ground and make a great jump in front of Rashad for the interception.
The repercussions of the almighty Andrew Luck throwing an interception in Martin Stadium sent Richter Scales off the charts.
This was Horton’s second of four consecutive games with an interception (led team). With Nolan Washington returning from injury, the Cougar secondary seems to be coming together.
In theory, the pressure brought by the front 7 should potentially lead to more opportunities for Damante Horton and the secondary to make big plays.
Let us pray they answer these opportunities.
Xavier Cooper – (RS) Freshman 6-4 298 lbs. DE/DT
The defensive line, other than Long, has been a big question mark for WSU.
They have yet to have that one player step up in the middle and take over the defensive tackle position. Highly touted recruit Brandon Rankin was brought in with expectations to fill this void, but just never had the production that was anticipated.
Now, with Long moving into the “Buck” position, the defensive line is even more nimble. The coaching staff handed out 17 scholarships to defensive lineman alone in this 2012 recruiting class, so the depth is coming.
Breske needs a true nose tackle to take the anchor in his 3-4/Multiple scheme, and Xavier Cooper could be the answer.
Cooper may not have the overwhelming size you look for in a Pac-12 defensive tackle, but he has been playing both defensive end and defensive tackle in the spring practices and wowed the coaching staff.
It has been over three years since Cooper has played in an actual game, due to academic inabilities.
Fortunately, while he might lack in one category, he thrives in another (the other being an athletic freak of nature).
For example, in high school he lettered three times in both football and basketball.
He posted 85 tackles and 11 sacks his senior season on the football field, and averaged 13 rebounds a game on the basketball court.
It is this athleticism that makes him an intriguing prospect at the position, and may be just what Breske is looking for to anchor the Cougar defense in the 2012 season.