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Preseason Opponent Preview: Washington State’s defense

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NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Washington State vs Michigan State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

​In three years time, Washington State went from a defensive non-factor to one of the top squads in all of NCAA football. Under the tutelage of former defensive coordinator, Alex Grinch, the Cougars finally had a defensive identity to match head coach, Mike Leach’s high-flying air raid offense, but with Grinch moving on to Ohio State, can they keep the upwards trajectory intact with new coordinator Tracy Claeys?

​As if the loss of Grinch wasn’t enough, the Cougars also replace most of the key players on their defensive line, including stalwart Hercules Mata’afa, who alone accounted for a team high 10.5 sacks last season. In fact, the only difference maker returning to the line is Nnamdi Oguayo. The redshirt junior started in six games last season and appeared in 11, mustering 20 solo tackles and 4 sacks on the season.

​Despite a slew of losses along the line, the Cougars should be comfortable with their options at linebacker. Senior Peyton Pelluer was awarded a sixth year of eligibility after breaking his foot early into the 2017 campaign, but was a human wrecking ball in 2016, amassing 93 total tackles. Even through less than three games in 2017, the 6’0” 230 veteran’s stat-line was nothing to scoff at, earning 5 solo tackles, 14 assisted tackles and 1 interception returned for 36 yards. Joining him his Jahad Woods, a redshirt sophomore who made a name for himself last season as one of the best run stoppers in the nation, ending run plays 13.2% of the time, a conference leading statistic in 2017.

​Highlighting the veteran defense is 2017’s leading tackler, strong safety Jalen Thompson. The junior has found his way on to the Bednarik Award watch list and is one of the top returning safeties in the Pac-12 this season after turning in 73 total tackles and four interceptions last season.

​Expect the Cougars to continue imposing their will on to rival offenses in 2018. Even with Grinch departing for greener pastures and Mata’afa taking his talents to the NFL, Wazzu has enough proven talent returning to remain impactful.