PULLMAN – It was back in the sweaty days of July when Deone Bucannon mulled questions about the Washington State football program. Were the painful days of adjustment to new coaches behind the Cougars? Had they turned a corner?
“This is the best team I’ve been on,” said Bucannon, WSU’s senior safety. “I don’t know what any of that means — rebuilding. I don’t know what turning the corner means.
“I’ve been here three years, and they’ve been saying the same thing for five years. Rebuilding means you intend to lose. If we’re rebuilding, there’s no point in me playing.”
Now Bucannon’s college career has dwindled to four games, just four in a scheduled 48, and there’s little doubt that, indeed, this is the best WSU team he has known. If the program is going to take that quantum step of landing in a bowl game for the first time since 2003, the surge has to begin soon, and the Halloween-night game Thursday with Arizona State would be an ideal time to ignite it.
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This week, Bucannon was named a Thorpe Award semifinalist, putting him among the nation’s 15 best defensive backs. But he’d probably just as soon advance the cause of a 4-4 football team.
“He wants to win games more than anything,” says his brother David, a redshirt freshman safety. “His goal when he first came here was to try to change the program.”
The senior Bucannon (pronounce his first name Day-OHN) is a quiet figure who has mostly suffered the program’s hard knocks in silence. In 2013, he leads the Pac-12 in tackles with 73 and is in the top five in interceptions (four) and fumbles forced (three). SportsIllustrated.com named him to its midseason first-team All-America list.
He’s likely to be the highest WSU player drafted since 2007, when receiver Jason Hill went in the third round. What ensued were six drafts in which the Cougars had a grand total of four players taken, testimony to the misery the program has seen.
Bucannon will bump that number, thanks to the persuasiveness of ASU defensive backs coach Chris Ball, one of WSU’s best recruiters under Paul Wulff.
“I wasn’t like a five-star recruit,” says Bucannon, who went to high school in Fairfield, Calif. “I was like three stars. Scout had me like the 102nd-rated safety.
“I’ve kind of been an underdog my whole life. Coach Ball, when I talked to him, he made me feel different, that I could be a great player.”
Bucannon took only one visit, to WSU. He was about to go on No. 2 — to Arizona State — when he decided he had found what he wanted.
The Bucannon brothers grew up in a military family. Their father Duane was a Marine and mother Sonji was a career Navy woman.
Deone doesn’t consider himself a classic leader, but it’s clear he had that sort of impact on his brother, who jumped at the chance to go to WSU when he got an offer.
“He and I were really close,” David Bucannon says. “It was kind of like, he was always leading and I was always following.”
Turning lighthearted, he says, “He would always take a lot of the brunt for the trouble. He’d get the punishment and I’d come out scot-free.”
Deone was in eighth grade and David in sixth when they engaged in what David recalls as a “full-on tackle football game in this little apartment.” David tossed a football and it hit their mother’s favorite china vase, causing the top to fly off and chip.
“He got in trouble,” David says, “and I’m sitting on the couch listening, the innocent guy.”
Eight years later, Deone is due to make his 39th start, but the Sun Devils will see something of a different Bucannon than they’ve known.
He hit the weights religiously in the offseason and gained almost 20 solid pounds to about 215, befitting one of the heavy hitters in the Pac-12.
“Being 180-some or 190-some pounds, you’re not going to be able to cut it in this league,” says Bucannon. “The strength coaches made it a big deal for me to put on weight and keep my speed.”
WSU defensive coordinator Mike Breske credits Bucannon for “a great year so far.” It would be even better if Bucannon would curb a tendency to get out of position trying to cover for others.
“He’s so competitive, he tries to do too much,” says Breske. “He just has to understand, make routine plays, do your job.”
“He certainly looks the part,” says Rob Rang, NFL draft analyst for CBS-Sports.com. “He’s a big, athletic guy, an intimidator over the middle. And he shows some ball skills.”
Rang’s reservation has to do with Bucannon’s ability to change direction.
“He’s a little bit high-cut; he’s got really long legs,” Rang says. “It seems like he has to kind of gather his steps before he can change direction. At the collegiate level, you can kind of get away with that, but in the NFL, you’re facing Drew Brees with pinpoint accuracy, and he could struggle in coverage a little.”
Bucannon has four games to work on that. Or, if he and the Cougars come full-circle, five.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org