PULLMAN — After last season, no position had more question marks for the Washington State Cougars than the defensive line.
Four seniors who had seen considerable playing time were graduating, leaving holes to fill inside and out.
Then, over the spring and summer, those gaps began to disappear.
One of four seniors, Matt Mullennix, was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA and decided to return. Andy Mattingly, who started six games at linebacker, was converted to an end and started to bulk up. Kevin Kooyman, who had always been a reserve defensive end due, in part to his size, also began to put on weight. Andy Roof, who started five games on the offensive line in 2006 before being expelled from school last year, was reinstated and moved to the defensive side of the ball.
What was once considered a thin position was now thicker, though admittedly many of those counted on to perform would be unproven.
“Overall, they’ve done a great job of just trying to push themselves in practice to become better players, more fundamentally sound,” said new defensive line coach Malik Roberson.
But the road hasn’t been without its pitfalls.
Roof’s availability may hinge on an expected decision today from Whitman County prosecutor Denis Tracy whether to charge the 23-year-old in connection with a spring incident in Pullman. Roof was arrested, but has not been charged, after a fight outside a private party on College Hill in April. Even if Roof avoids charges, WSU’s Student Conduct board must still rule on his status within the school.
Plus, in January, Mattingly was involved in an incident at a Coeur d’Alene apartment. He was charged with felony counts of aggravated battery and burglary, but pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and was placed on probation. His record will be expunged if he fulfills the terms of his sentence, he said.
“If I had it do again, I wouldn’t have done what I did,” Mattingly said. “I was stupid. I’ve learned from it.”
The starters: If you asked just about any coach or player who improved the most over the summer, Kooyman’s name continually came up.
The junior from Maple Valley came to WSU weighing about 230 pounds but finished this summer nearly 20 pounds heavier. He and Mattingly should give WSU speed off the edge, an element always in abundance during the glory years early in the decade. Size, on the other hand, is still problematic.
“We like them to play with a lot of leverage and you need your hands and you need your feet to compensate for a lack of size,” Roberson said. “That’s something they’re going to have to master if they’re going to play for four quarters.”
There is even more for Mattingly to master, being he played safety in high school and linebacker his first two years in Pullman.
“It’s been a process for him that’s kind of been uphill,” Roberson said. “But he’s been getting better every day and just really learning the details of the position.”
Inside, A’i Ahmu returns after having played the nose in last year’s 3-4 set, and has been teaming with run-stuffer Matt Eichelberger, who was a backup last season.
The reserves: Actually, the difference between the starters and backups seems very slight, with the spots having rotated often through fall camp.
“It’s nice there’s a rotation, so when you get tired, you can have someone come in that’s fresh and get a fresh rush off the edge,” Mattingly said, “It will keep everybody healthy and fresh during the game, so there’s always someone giving that tackle a hard time.”
Mullennix has played often with the first group and should see considerable action. The same can be said of Roof, if he comes through the next few weeks, Adam Hineline and Bernard Wolfgramm inside and Mike Graise and Jessy Sanchez at the ends.
“That’s a good sign,” Mattingly said. “It would be bad if we only had a couple guys. It’s nice to have a solid rotation throughout the D-line.”
“I tell the guys every day, don’t worry about who you’re running with in practice,” Roberson said. “What matters is that you push yourself and others to just be the best player they can be that day.
“I am taking different looks. They are some question marks I need to run with the ones so I can get an accurate assess-ment of them and where they’re at and see what I have to work with.”
The outlook: The term untested comes to mind.
The ends struggled to get push against the offense in the first scrimmage last Saturday and only a handful of tackles could be credited to the entire line throughout the 52-play workout.
“We’re improving fast, we have to,” Mattingly said, then adding “we’re not where we want to be.”
Or where Roberson wants them.
“We have a ways to go yet,” Roberson said, “in the journey of becoming a good football player. It’s really what is all about.
“You have to come out with the right mind-set every day, and we’re inconsistent doing that. At the same time we’ve come a long way but we’re not where we need to be.”