Washington State coach Mike Leach didn’t even get to his first fall practice before he was reaquainted with a dose of college football criticism.
During the offseason, Leach dismissed linebackers Sekope Kaufusi and C.J. Mizell, as well as defensive lineman Anthony Laurenzi, after all three projected starters were arrested in separate incidents. While many Cougar fans applauded the fact that Leach stuck to his guns concerning his one-strike philosophy on drug and theft arrests, some have questioned whether he was too harsh with the first-time offenders.
Don’t count Mizell and Kaufusi’s former teammates among those detractors.
“I feel like dismissing (those guys), as bad as it sounds, was a better thing for the group, because they were cancers,” sophomore linebacker Darryl Monroe said. “Now, not only did that happen, but now we’re more hungry to get better and to be ready come BYU.”
That same sentiment is shared by hybrid defensive end/linebacker Travis Long.
“I feel like sometimes some of those older guys took it for granted that they were the starters,” he said. “These young guys want to be on the field and are going to work to get on the field.”
The top four linebackers from last year’s roster are gone — Alex Hoffman-Ellis and Mike Ledgerwood to graduation, and Mizell and Kaufusi (dismissed). That leaves little experience, but a great deal of potential on the roster.
One group that left former WSU coach Paul Wulff most proud was his young linebacker corps, highlighted by a pair of talented players in Chester Su’a and Monroe, who are a true sophomore and redshirt freshman, respectively.
Now, those young men are being molded to fit the new 3-4 scheme brought in by Leach and his staff, including linebacker coach Jeff Choate.
Choate, who was the special teams coach at Boise State for six years and worked with the linebackers in 2009, also sees a young group with vast potential — even if they lack experience.
“I think it’s a group of guys that our two-deep is fairly solidified, but there’s going to be a guy or two that’s going to sneak in there,” Choate said. “It’s been fun to watch them compete with one another. I think we’ve got great chemistry in the room.”
If anyone questions whether this group is intimidated by a new 3-4 scheme, albeit one that has “a lot of crossover” according to Choate, think again.
“Who wants to just go out there and get embarrassed? We are what’s next, so we just busted our (butts) the whole summer,” Monroe said. “We don’t want to go out there and get embarrassed. We want to go out and be recognized as the new linebackers. ... We’re just trying to take over.”
Aiding the transition will be Long, an All-Pac-12 standout defensive end the past few seasons. He will be asked to play outside linebacker as well this season.
“I played linebacker in high school, so I had some experience with pass coverage, but the spring really helped me get those concepts down and I was able to work on it all summer,” he said.
Long, who Choate said is “starting to hit his stride,” isn’t the only one trying to learn a new position as junior Eric Oertel, who was Wisconsin’s Gatorade Player of the Year his senior year in high school, switched to linebacker earlier in his Cougar career and is now learning to deliver, rather than run from, the big hit.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult,” Oertel said. “Change is uncomfortable for most people. Going from position to position and changing staffs and learning a whole new defense gets frustrating after awhile. In the end, God works in mysterious ways, and I think every guy on the defensive side of the ball would agree with me when I say that the change is for the better. We’re taking advantage of that change, and I think it is going to show up for us throughout the year.”
While Long and Oertel are each learning relatively new positions, the young linebackers find themselves with an uphill climb of their own — forced to master their second defense in as many years in Pullman.
“It’s just like being an incoming freshman. Everything is new,” Su’a said. “You’ve just got to get used to it.”
Complicating that even further for Monroe is the fact that he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury against Idaho State in the season opener last year after earning a spot in fall camp as a true freshman.
The experience was painful for the Florida product.
“Not even the injury itself, just me being displaced from the game, that’s what really hurt me — nothing more, nothing less,” he said. “It sucked being away from the game.”
Now, Monroe and the rest of the linebackers are back on the field, learning a new scheme and adjusting to the array of obstacles that has stood in each of their ways the past few seasons.
“We call them the ‘Misfit Toys.’ Those are shared experiences and adversity always brings people closer together,” Choate said.
They have all heard about the preseason magazine and newspaper predictions — that the dismissals make the linebacking corp the weakest area on the team. They just don’t care.
“Honestly, I hear a lot of people say that,” Oertel said. “I just tell them to turn on the TV. Turn on ESPN on August 30th.”