The Washington State Cougars opened camp looking for help on defense, particularly at the linebacker position. During the spring, Mike Leach dismissed two returning LBs who were projected to be starters in 2012. The defense wasn’t all that good (or deep) to begin with so replacing a pair of starting linebackers with experience was going to be a tall order. However, as camp opens, the Cougars could be finding someone ready to step up and fill in one of those vacant spots with junior college transfer Justin Sagote.
Sagote has just six official WSU practices under his belt, so he’s admittedly still rusty on the defense. He’ll be the first to admit that he isn’t always sure where he’s supposed to go at the snap of the ball, saying there are “millions” of snaps where he isn’t sure where he’s supposed to be. That’s a bit of an overstatement, of course, but there’s no doubt Sagote has room to grow in the Cougar defense. He’s making up for his lack of expertise with a simple defensive philosophy: “Run to the ball,” which has made up for all kinds of mental lapses.
The linebacker’s effort has endeared him very quickly to the coaching staff. Head coach Mike Leach has talked glowingly about Sagote, mentioning the transfer by name, unprompted, in post-practice interviews, singling the linebacker out as one of the players who has caught his eye during this fall camp. Linebackers coach Jeff Choate singled out Sagote and his effort in a brief mini-scrimmage on Tuesday where he replaced presumed starter Chester Su’a, saying “If you want to play here, and you want to play linebacker, then you play like this.” Choate recognizes that Sagote will need to make strides in learning his defensive assignments, but the coaching staff will teach him on the fly, because with his effort, the coach says “he’s going to play a ton for us.”
Part of the reason Sagote still has so much to learn is because he’s still relatively new to the linebacker position. In high school, he played center and guard and didn’t make the transition to the defensive side of the ball until his senior year. By that time, it was too late to get any real looks from major schools, so he continued his linebacker study at College of San Mateo, where he made 39.5 tackles, 4.5 for loss, and two sacks as a sophomore last season. He turned that effort into scholarship offers from San Diego State, Purdue, and Washington State, and was quick to pick the Cougars after his official visit to Pullman.
The 6-foot-2 junior is a huge get for a Cougar program desperate for defensive contributors. The defensive coaches can see Sagote filling either of the middle linebacker positions in the new 3-4 scheme and has experience playing inside and outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. His motor is non-stop and Sagote appears to be all over the field, even if he’s still hazy on all his defensive assignments.
The Cougars recognize that JC transfers can be a crap shoot, and you’re never sure just what kind of player will come onto campus, but they are very fortunate to have him. Sagote is going to contribute a lot this season, and he’s going to do it playing high-energy football, setting an example that Cougars coaches hopes is contagious. “I hope some of these other guys are watching him,” Choate said, “and if they’re not, then they’re going to be watching him because he’s going to be the one playing.”
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