Travis Long was a four-year starter for the Washington State Cougars and one of the most underrated pass-rushers in college football. His accomplishments largely go unnoticed because he played on nothing but lousy defenses, but his impact on the WSU defense cannot be overstated. He has been the Cougars’ best defensive player since he stepped onto the field four years ago and now he’s gone. So what will Wazzu do without him?
It’s a pressing question that’s going to need a very good answer. Last season, Long led the team with 9.5 sacks in just 11 games played, which is more impressive when you consider that every team knew the Cougars’ pass rush fell completely on him. If opposing teams wanted all the time they could possibly need in the pocket, they just needed to block Long–and he still tallied almost double-digit sacks.
To drive the point home about how one-dimensional the Cougar rush was last season, no other Washington State defender had more than three sacks (which four players achieved). Long accounted for more than 27 percent of all of Washington State’s sacks last season as he averaged .86 sacks per game, while the next best Cougar was freshman defensive lineman Xavier Cooper with .27 sacks per game (3.0 sacks in 11 games).
So who will step up and replace Long’s production? The outgoing senior’s backup, Logan Mayes, recorded 2.5 sacks during his sophomore season and all four defensive players who recorded 3.0 sacks (Cooper, Cyrus Coen, Darryl Monroe, Ioane Gauta) will return. Can any of them take their game to the next level and fill the pass-rushing void left by Long?
But a more important question for Washington State is whether they can create pressure on the quarterback without compromising their pass defense. Knowing that the team lacked a true pass-rush specialist besides Long, the Cougar defense relied on blitz packages to manufacture pressure, having to send multiple linebackers at a time.
While it worked sometimes (linebackers accounted for 22.5 sacks in 2012), it also hurt the team when the blitzes didn’t hit home. Washington State finished No. 11 in pass efficiency defense in the Pac 12 last season. Part of that was a poor group of defensive backs, but a bigger part was leaving those struggling corners on an island while the defense brought the house to try and get to the quarterback.
Travis Long was far and away the most productive and talented member of the Washington State Cougars’ defense over the last four years. With his graduation, one of the biggest questions facing Mike Leach and company this spring and into next fall is what do they do now?