Depth, and some size, could allow Cougars to specialize

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Close observers of the Washington State defense have been waiting more than a year to see a fire hydrant called Lamonte McDougle operate at nose tackle on game day.

In all likelihood, they’ll indeed see him in a season opener against New Mexico State on Saturday (7 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) at Martin Stadium.

But he probably won’t start. Which is quite a commendation for the guy who will.

The Cougars are deep and relatively good-sized at that critical spot, and the depth part of the equation applies more or less to the entire front seven. Good-sized? Aside from a position or two, that’s not a huge priority for the Cougars’ Speed D anyway.

In any case, the plethora of competent players will allow coaches to rotate frequently, sometimes to keep players fresh and sometimes to tailor the defense to a particular down and distance.

“We’ve got a lot of bodies -- that’s the one thing that’s kind of unique and kind of special there,” defensive line coach Jeff Phelps said. “So we can get creative -- create some roles for guys that they will be able to do specifically.”

Phelps agreed the Cougs are bulkier in some spots, but “more so we’ve gotten stronger,” he said. “That’s a testament to Tyson (strength coach Tyson Brown) and his crew ... getting those guys to as much weight as they can carry and be strong -- and still be fast. With Speed D, we don’t want to lose that ever. That’s our DNA.”

Even McDougle, whose height is generously given as 6-foot-0, isn’t a prototype nose tackle. But at 291 pounds, the sophomore transfer from West Virginia, who redshirted at Wazzu last year, boasts a lower-body strength that, one imagines, will eventually be a difference-maker for the defensive line.

For now, he’s locked in a competitive battle for a starting role with senior Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei (6-3, 270), a New Zealander who shined for a junior college in California and was a capable backup for the Cougs last year, recording a sack in the Alamo Bowl.

Known to teammates as “Meesi,” Aiolupotea-Pei said the competition is aiding the progress of both players, as well as sophomore Jesus Echevarria (6-2, 285, known as “Zeus”) and others.

“Iron sharpens iron,” he said.

The nose men will be flanked by proven pass-rushers like senior end Nnamdi Oguayo (6-3, 260) and junior tackle Will Rodgers III (6-4, 255), probably backed up by diligent senior Karson Block (6-2, 253) and imposing sophomore Dallas Hobbs (6-6, 285), respectively.

There’s also good depth at rush linebacker, led by sophomore Willie Taylor III (6-4, 230), who tallied four sacks last season and made a game-saving play in the Alamo Bowl. His understudies include second-year freshman Ron Stone Jr. (6-3, 228) and soph Fa’avae Fa’avae (6-0, 230).

The biggest challenge on the front seven is replacing the iconic Peyton Pelluer, but his successors at middle linebacker hardly lack seasoning, and one of them, Justus Rogers (6-2, 230), developed a habit of jumping pass routes during preseason camp. He spent much of camp dueling fellow junior Dillon Sherman (6-2, 230) for the No. 1 role.

For all that, the top dog of the defense is junior weakside backer Jahad Woods (6-1, 228), a 23-game starter who forced four fumbles last season and was honorable-mention All-Pac-12. He’s backed up by springy junior Dominick Silvels (6-2, 230), converting from rush to WLB.

Also keep an eye out for true freshman Travion Brown (6-3, 220), who is “picking things up unlike any freshman I’ve been around,” linebackers coach Roc Bellantoni said.

In short, when the Cougars unveil their defensive depth chart for the New Mexico State game this week, don’t view it as gospel. These roles will be in shuffle mode for weeks.

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