Cougars can rearrange defenders depending on the offensive situation

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PULLMAN — The varying strengths of Washington State’s defensive linemen mean assistant coach Joe Salave’a can turn each play into a game of chess.

The other team has its power back in during rushing situations? Big boys like Ngalu Tapa, Robert Barber and Destiny Vaeao were born to plug up gaps.

It’s third-and-long against a quarterback who can fire downfield, run for a first down or turn a quick screen pass into a big gain? Smaller, speedier linemen like Daniel Ekuale and Reggie Coates can serve as the countermeasure.

The WSU defensive linemen vary deeply in size and skill set — the heaviest and lightest players in the projected two-deep are separated by more than 70 pounds. And while what makes each player successful might vary, Salave’a’s coaching points to every player are largely the same.

“I’m excited, to say the least, that we’ve got some bodies that can step in and probably do some more stuff,” he said. “The biggest thing we’re trying to hone is our mindset and tempo.”

It’s likely the Cougars have no unit with more to replace than the defensive line, which lost Kalafitoni Pole to graduation and Xavier Cooper to the NFL. It’s also likely no unit has a greater surplus of readily available replacements.

Defensive end Hercules Mata’afa in particular is a new face to keep an eye on this season. While redshirting in 2014, Mata’afa was such a dominant force during the team’s “Thursday Night Football” underclassmen scrimmages that he practically ruined the exercise for quarterbacks, who got as much practice getting sacked as they did throwing against the defense.

Coach Mike Leach acknowledged in fall camp that he considered playing Mata’afa last season, burning his redshirt despite the season being mostly over.

The defensive end is one of the team’s strongest players and is backing up Vaeao, the unit’s leader. Vaeao has been a limited participant during preseason practices and it seems likely Mata’afa will be used extensively to keep Vaeao fresh in games.

Mata’afa and Darryl Paulo, a fifth-year senior, have taken advantage in the preseason of new coordinator Alex Grinch’s defense, which Paulo says gives the ends more one-on-ones.

“We’re going to be a lot more aggressive,” Paulo said. “Last year we played at the line of scrimmage a lot. We’re going to be in attack mode all day.”

Nowhere are Salave’a’s options more evident than at nose tackle, where Barber’s advantage over Ekuale is small enough that the situation likely to dictate who plays.

“They play very different,” said Paulo. “Daniel’s a lot more aggressive, he’s a lot more explosive. Robert’s just a big dude, he’s hard to move and he gets in there and penetrates pretty well.”