DEPTH CHART: SAM: Sr. Andy Mattingly (6-4, 255); Jr. Hallston Higgins (5-11, 222); R-Fr. Joshua Garrett (6-3, 214); R-So. Deon Ford (6-1, 233) | MIKE: R-So. Alex Hoffman (6-1, 236); So. Mike Ledgerwood (6-0, 224); R-Sr. Jason Stripling (5-11, 225); R-Fr. Kevin Baffney (6-1, 222); R-Sr. Sam Tennant (6-0, 217); R-So. Omari Guidry (6-0, 200) | WIL: So. Louis Bland (5-10, 202); R-Jr. Myron Beck (5-11, 202); R-Fr. Jarred Walker (6-3, 213); R-Jr. Andrew Kreutz (5-11, 208)
PLAYERS LOST: Greg Trent (Started all 13 games in '08, led team with 88 tackles. Posted 42 starts in 48 games played over WSU career, with 323 career tackles, No. 7 on WSU's all-time list.) Ken Dunn (Three starts in '08), Cory Evans (Six starts in '08)
INJURIES: Bland injured a knee in the spring, and Paul Wulff has said he may not be ready in time for the opener. Mattingly injured a chest muscle and missed most of spring, he is expected back and ready for fall camp.
OVERVIEW: The Cougs lose a lot in Trent, a vastly underrated linebacker for WSU the last four years. They have a decent number of veterans and a good-sized number in the youth department with plenty of potential. For '09, if the Cougs are to be successful, the veterans are going to have to perform as expected and in some cases, raise their game. Some of the youth brigade, meanwhile, are going to need to grow up fast.
Mattingly moves back to strongside backer and at 255 pounds, will have to show he can cover the tight end and move well enough laterally to shut down the run. He's an accomplished sack artist, and the Cougs may benefit by sending him full-tilt after the QB and into the breech.
Hoffman-Ellis has made a smooth transition from junior college OLB over to Pac-10 MLB this past year, redshirting for the Cougs in '08. He came in raw and probably has a little more polish left to be applied, but he's very athletic and can flat out run. He brings the hammer with him when he hits, but he also needs to work on proper technique and wrapping up.
With Bland, freshman linebackers aren't supposed to assimilate the read and react position as quickly as he did as a true freshman last season, especially towards the end of last year. He still needs to get bigger, but at the same time not lose his elevated, innate ability on how to maneuver himself into position. His ceiling is a high one.
The forgotten man for many fans might be Stripling. He shouldn't be. Strip has been injured a good portion of his Cougar career -- and then at other times, simply hasn't performed the way he's capable. But as a redshirt freshman he gave plenty of looks that led you to believe he was going to be a great Pac-10 linebacker. He has speed, strength and a solid knowledge of the game. He's also versatile and can play inside and out. And he can crack pads with the best of them. If he's healthy, and if he rediscovers a couple of things, he'll be an impact player in his final go-around with the Cougs.
Higgins, Ledgerwood and Garrett all made moves this spring and if they continue that upward path in fall camp ,which begins on Sunday, they can help the Cougs this year. Ledgerwood will try and push Hoffman-Ellis and at the least, could be valuable in rotation. Higgins is more a natural strongside 'backer but might be the choice if Bland can't go for the opener on the weakside while Garrett could play his way into the rotation with a strong fall camp showing. Beck is another one to keep an eye on. He's undersized but with a solid knowledge of the game and he has some nice 'backer skills on the outside.
The other area for some of the linebackers, a place where they can really make their mark this year, is on special teams coverage and return units.
AN OPTIMIST WOULD SAY: The Cougs will miss Trent but Hoffman-Ellis, if he plays smart and keeps improving, will have a good year. Bland, once he returns to full health, is only going to get better, and he was pretty dang good as last year came to a close. Mattingly will post a crooked number in the sack column. The Cougs are going to be able to rotate more at 'backer this year because the guys behind the starters are going to be better and more ready than they've been in the past. Washington State has some speed here, and they've gotten stronger across the board.
A PESSIMIST WOULD SAY: WSU is, for the most part, inexperienced here and Cougar Nation will see a lot of learning on the job. The depth will play, and while that will help the Cougs for the years to come, there will be a price to be paid in '09 for that experience and knowledge gained.
STAR PLAYER: Louis Bland and Andy Mattingly.
UNIT STRENGTH: Knowledge plus read and react skills.
UNIT WEAKNESS: Experience.
WULFF: "Health is the key as we have seniors Andy Mattingly and Jason Stripling that can play there, but have been nicked-up...We have some young players there that need to play but maybe aren't ready to play every snap in the Pac-10. Louis Bland... we expect to have a big year. Myron Beck is back in the mix, along with Alex Hoffman-Ellis, Mike Ledgerwood and Josh Garrett, who had a nice spring.. Hallston Higgins is another one. They all are going to have an opportunity to play on special teams and prove themselves at the linebacker position."