WSU's defensive line starters are a seasoned group that can be counted upon to produce early, but depth is an issue for the Cougs, who have enlisted the help of a big rolling donut to give their linemen a safer way to practice tackle drills

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On a sunny Monday afternoon in Lewiston this week, Washington State defensive line coach Joe Salave’a set up an obstacle course of sorts for his big defensive linemen.

They quickstepped over two bags, and then had to duck around the big red ball in the middle of the course before tracking and tackling what looked like a big, padded rolling donut that a graduate assistant had shoved into motion.

The rolling donut works to give the defensive guys some practice at wrapping up on tackles without exposing them to injury.

“The biggest thing is the fundamental and mechanics of tackling,” Salave’a said. “You can’t take that for granted, and (with the donut) our big guys get to be exposed to that.”

Previously, the linemen would have been asked to pair up and practice tackling on each other. That works fine to a point, but it also poses an increased risk of injury.

With the rolling donut now available as a training tool, “this at least eliminates the injuries a little bit, and we get to still hit at Mach 2,” Salave’a said.

The Cougars first acquired the donuts in the spring. Since then, they’ve been adopted for tackling practice by all the defensive position groups.

“It’s fun,” defensive lineman Dan Ekuale said. “You’ve just gotta show low pad level and get to the tackle, stay low and make the tackle.”

Staying healthy over the course of a season is always one of the biggest gifts the football gods can bestow upon any football team can, but avoiding the injury bug is more important than ever for the WSU defensive line this fall.

Between the speedy Hercules Mata’afa who showed last year that he has a knack for getting to the quarterback, big Robert Barber who plugs up the middle and moves deceptively well for a 6-foot-3, 305-pound behemoth, and sturdy, dependable Ekuale, WSU’s defensive line has the potential to be very good if the starters all stay healthy.

Mata’afa, Ekuale and Barber were capable backups last season behind an incredibly effective line anchored by Destiny Vaeao and Darryl Paulo. Ekuale and Barber especially, each went into 2015 with a full year of backup experience. That added some measure of reassurance for Salave’a.

But this year, behind Mata’afa, Barber and Ekuale, the Cougs have a lot of young, untested linemen. And aside from fifth-year senior Jeremiah Mitchell and redshirt freshman Ngalu Tapa – who each got a handful of snaps last season – none of these backup linemen have much playing experience at the FBS level.

So at least early in the season, there might be a wider-than-desired dropoff in production behind the first string defensive line and any other player Salave’a might call upon to spell his starters.

The coach is very much aware of this situation. That’s why, early in fall camp this week, Salave’a switched up the configuration of his top two lines, moving Ekuale from end to tackle for several practices, while having Barber work at end with the second team.

“That’s where we’re mix and matching all across the board from front end to the back end,” Salave’a said.

The idea is to cross train the veterans so that they can play multiple positions in the event of an injury.

Many of the younger players on the line such as converted linebacker Nnamdi Oguayo, Kingston Fernandez, Tapa, Mitchell and junior college transfer Garrett McBroom have shown promise.

But a successful season for the defensive line hinges upon their ability to progress from flashes of potential to being truly game-ready and able to step in for a starter without any dropoff in production level.

“We expect these guys to take the next step in their progression and growth,” Salave’a said. “We don’t have the luxury of time. It’s either sink or swim. … If they don’t improve by leaps and bounds, we don’t have a chance.”