Cougars' defensive struggles shouldn't continue
Newcomers helping to brighten future for WSU's defense
Washington State @ Oregon State, 1 p.m., FSN
PULLMAN — If the recent past is a minefield for the Washington State defense, and it is, then the future is the safe haven.
The Cougars' defense has been shattered more than once the past three years, finishing 108th nationally out of 119 teams in total defense in 2008, 120th and last in 2009, and 120th again after 10 games this season.
But there is hope, and it's in the form of seven players who have received their first major-college playing time this year. All but one will be counted on heavily when the Cougars face Oregon State on Saturday in Corvallis.
The leaders are two true freshmen, strong safety Deone Bucannon and middle linebacker C.J. Mizell.
Both are among the Pac-10 leaders in tackles, with Bucannon third (8.9 a game) and Mizell 16th (6.8) in conference games.
But Mizell and Bucannon are not alone as defensive newcomers.
Cornerback Nolan Washington, tackle Brandon Rankin, linebacker Sekope Kaufusi, safety Casey Locker and now out-for-the-season cornerback Damante Horton will all be back next year.
"They have brought speed, toughness and more physical play," WSU coach Paul Wulff said of the young group that has seen its playing time grow. "They've also added more passion than we've had."
Bucannon, a freshman from Fairfield, Calif., took over the strong safety role for good against Oregon.
"He's playing exceptionally well," said Chris Ball, the WSU co-defensive coordinator. "He makes some mental mistakes and missed tackles, but, as far as playing that position as a true freshman, I've only had one other guy do that as well, Eric Coleman."
Kaufusi, a redshirt freshman, moved to linebacker for the Oregon game. He's brought size (6 feet 3, 233 pounds) to the linebacking corps.
Locker, another redshirt freshman, wasn't expected to play that much this season, but LeAndre Daniels' neck injury opened the nickel-back spot for the Ferndale native.
"The great thing about him is he practices extremely hard and he understands the defense," Ball said.
Mizell got off to a rocky start when he was kicked out of a drill for lack of effort, missed a practice for personal issues and took a while to learn the work ethic needed at this level, but since then the freshman from Tallahassee, Fla., has anchored the defense in the middle. His 12 tackles against California last week not only tied a career high, they came in his best game.
"He just keeps getting better," Ball said. "He sat out a year and he was out of shape, but he's made big strides. Really proud of the way he's come along."
Rankin, a junior-college transfer who, like Mizell, did not play football last season, came to Pullman carrying a lot of hype. The 6-5, 281-pound junior has had to learn a new position — tackle — while also learning the ins-and-outs of major-college football.
After redshirting last season, Washington stepped into the starting lineup in the first game. He's had some growing pains, but has come on strong recently.