The Washington State Cougars have struggled to recapture the magic that made them one of the most successful football programs in the country from 2000-2004. Through the Bill Doba years to the Paul Wulff era and now into the first year of Mike Leach‘s regime, the Cougs seem stuck at the bottom of the Pac 12 conference.
One of the bright spots, however, has been the play of defensive end/outside linebacker Travis Long, whose accomplishments have largely gone overlooked outside of the conference because of the terrible defenses he played on. With the Cougars’ best defensive player over the last five years now gone, how will WSU cope without him?
It will be no small feat, as Long left a legacy that will stand up in the WSU record books for quite some time. As a four-year starter who started 47 games in a row, Long accumulated 20.5 sacks, good for No. 6 on the team’s all-time list, and recorded 42 tackles for loss, the No. 4 highest career total in program history.
Last season, he continued to be a disruptive force in opposing backfields even as the only legitimate pass-rusher on the Cougar defense. He led the team with 9.5 sacks, ranking sixth in the conference, and recorded 61 tackles (third on the team) including 13 tackles for loss.
So with the best player on a terrible defense no longer there, what does that mean for WSU next fall? It means that the door is open for someone to have a breakout season as the Cougars’ next go-to pass rusher. Luckily for Leach and company, they have a couple of candidates.
The obvious choice would be Long’s backup, junior Logan Mayes. He makes for an excellent replacement at the “buck” linebacker position Long learned in 2012. At 6-foot-3, 241 pounds, Mayes has the size to hold the edge while mixing in some athleticism to get after the quarterback. In limited time last season, he recorded 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hurries.
Even better, the returning defensive starters from last season will create a much stronger front seven in 2013. Xavier Cooper and nose tackle Ioane Gauta return on the defensive line after recording three sacks a piece in 2012, and every other linebacker is back as well. Darryl Monroe and Cyrus Coen lead the linebacking unit after combining for 140 tackles and six sacks last season.
While the team likely won’t be able to replace Long with a single person, it may benefit them to move away from one defensive star that the whole team leans on and just play better team defense instead. Having everyone step their game up collectively could yield better results than waiting for one guy to take over.
In support of that theory, Wazzu turned in one of its best defensive performances last year with Long on the sideline in the Apple Cup against the Washington Huskies. UW was held to just 269 yards and Keith Price was sacked three times and hurried five times as WSU secured its first Pac 12 win of the season.
Travis Long will long be remembered as an excellent Coug, but Washington State may be able to find more balance in his absence and put together a stronger overall defensive effort in 2013.