Click on your dictionary, type in the word savage and such words as fierce, ferocious, unpolished and rugged dot the definition. And all of them...

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PULLMAN — Click on your dictionary, type in the word savage and such words as fierce, ferocious, unpolished and rugged dot the definition.

And all of them could apply to this year’s Washington State defensive line.

That might explain why the group breaks a huddle with one word: savages.

“That’s how we want to play,” said sophomore end Travis Long.

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A new word for a new year. It’s a different group with a different mindset running a different scheme this season. The Cougars hope for different results.

Last year, the Cougars had the fourth-worst run defense in the nation and were sixth-worst in passing defense and sacks, three statistical black marks that can be partly blamed on disappointing play up front.

Injuries cut away at the group’s core — only true freshman Long started all 12 games — and sapped its strength, physically and mentally.

Which made rebuilding the front four an offseason priority. And, so far, it seems to be working.

Senior end Kevin Kooyman, who injured his knee the second week last season, decided to come back for another year despite earning a degree. Senior tackle Bernard Wolfgramm spent the offseason toning his body, losing weight and strengthening his balky back. Junior-college transfer Brandon Rankin shucked off an offer from Alabama and made his way from North Carolina to Pullman where he’s gathered rave reviews.

And Long, honorable-mention All-Pac-10 last year, put on a few pounds, added muscle and came to camp ready to improve.

“I just want to be more consistent on stopping the run,” he said. “I need to get more consistent (establishing) a new line of scrimmage back, getting off the ball better, making my hand placement better.”

The four have blended quickly, each filling a role in the Cougars’ defensive scheme. The first two weeks of practice, the group gave the offense fits.

But don’t take our word on it. Listen to the guys who benefit from it every day, the defensive backs.

“The defensive line, they’ve improved tremendously,” said safety Tyree Toomer. “They’ve helped us out so much. It just makes our job so much easier.

“I can remember from previous years, the safety would be one-on-one with the running back as soon as the running back got the ball. But now, by the time we get there, he’s being tackled by a D-lineman or linebacker’s got to him.”

“It’s night and day,” said cornerback Nolan Washington. “They’re dominating from the ones to the twos to the threes. … They’re dominating practice. The quarterbacks can’t even get a play off. That makes my job so much easier.”

It also has made defensive-line coach Malik Roberson’s job easier as well, as he freely admits. Each player has a role, according to Roberson, and they all are performing it in practice.

Kooyman, at 6 feet 6 and 262 pounds, is “the big strong defensive end that has to give us the push from the weak side,” Roberson said.

Wolfgramm, 6-3, 285, is the nose tackle who must control the gap between the center and guard.

“We like him to be more disruptive than to just hold the (A) gap,” Roberson said.

Rankin, 6-5, 281, is the inside pass rusher, given the freedom to attack.

“His biggest role is to rush the passer,” Roberson said.

And the 6-4, 258 Long? He has to control the tight end’s side, using his athleticism to fill many roles.

“We mesh pretty well together and seem to work well together collapsing the pocket in pass rush and getting all the gaps filled in the run,” Long said. “It’s kind of nice having a cohesive group.”

And some depth.

“It’s been nice to have a rotation in the fall camp. Guys have stayed fresher, and that’s one of the main reasons we’ve stayed healthy,” Roberson said, “knock on wood.”

But nicks and pains might not hurt as much, with the emergence of sophomore Anthony Laurenzi, freshmen Sekope Kaufusi, Justin Clayton and Toni Pole, to go along with senior Casey Hamlett and junior-college transfer Steven Hoffart as backups.

“(The depth) is because we’ve had great leadership from our seniors in the group,” Roberson said. “They’ve really worked hard together and worked for each other. The seniors are bringing along the younger guys, that’s really important.

“Whoever the next guy is that’s in, our mission never changes.”

All of the hype, however, has yet to be realized on the field. For Rankin and many of the reserves, Saturday’s opener at Oklahoma State will be their first taste of big-time college football. And that taste is different.

“I really had no idea,” Long said of the challenge. “Camp was all right, but you really have no idea until you get out there on the field.”

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