There is no other position facing as much uncertainty heading into next season for the Washington State football team as rush linebacker, where the Cougars must effectively replace two starters, Ivan McClennan and Kache Palacio, at one position.
McClennan started nine games at rush linebacker last season and had 42 tackles, six sacks and nine tackles for loss, while Palacio, who started four games, collected 32 tackles, five and 10 tackles for loss.
First in line to replace their pass-rushing productivity are junior Dylan Hanser and redshirt freshman Nnamdi Oguayo. Both would prefer to win the job outright, but outside linebackers coach Roy Manning is obviously willing to make it a shared position.
Either way, the Cougars will be starting someone with little to no game experience at rush linebacker.
“It’s amazing and scary at the same time, because they rely so much on you,” Oguayo said. “In your mind you’re not trying to mess up, but you’ve just got to play the next play.”
Hanser is listed at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, although he would like to be up to 240 pounds by next season.
A rangy athlete, the Montana native has mostly contributed on special teams. He blocked a punt last year at UCLA, although his size and enviable straight-line speed have long hinted at a player who could become a regular contributor as an upperclassman.
Hanser began his career further from the line of scrimmage, but joined the rush linebackers, who play up alongside the defensive line, early last year. While he was impressive in drills and scrimmages, there was little chance of him unseating two established and productive veterans.
Still, that year in training made for a smooth transition.
“I learned a lot from ‘KP’ and Ivan,” Hanser said. “Just constantly watching them every day, seeing how they do it.”
Through WSU’s first two spring practices, Hanser has gotten more reps with the first team defense.
In Oguayo, the Cougars have an intriguing athlete and one who began to dominate WSU’s weekly underclassmen scrimmages in the final weeks of last season. Back then, the freshman from Beltsville, Maryland, was lean at 6-3, 210 pounds, but hit harder than his size would indicate, forcing fumbles seemingly every week by the time November rolled around.
He’s up to 218 pounds now and probably will be pushing 225 come fall. The Cougars hope by then Oguayo has gotten out of his head, as well.
“I learned just to have fun when you’re out here playing; don’t try to overthink things too much,” Oguayo said. “Right now, I’m like a robot. I need to just relax and have fun.
“When I started having success, that’s when I started just going crazy.”
It’s a delicate balance for Oguayo because the Cougars don’t want him thinking too much, but they also need him to learn the intricacies of their system quickly.
He and Hanser have had less than a year to master the position, and at least one of them has to excel at it so the Cougars can pressure quarterbacks next season.
“The reality is they’re both still young, they’re both still learning, and we’re going to put a lot on their plates,” Manning said. “Because they have to be good for us.”