Washington State defense sneaky good?

Taking only a cursory glance at Washington State's 2013 defense, you might only see the loss of four-year sacks leader Travis Long and the 33.7 points per game the Cougars surrendered last year, and therefore your most generous reaction probably would be, "Neh."

But, moving beyond a superficial impression, a closer look yields plenty of "Hmm." And perhaps some, "Maybe."

Sure, Long is gone and he'll be hard to replace, but eight players are back from a better-than-you-think 2012 unit and there's a lot more depth -- and competition -- heading into fall camp than a year ago.

This unit will be experienced and physically capable. There's veteran star power with safety Deone Bucannon, and there's up-and-coming talent in middle linebacker Darryl Monroe and tackle Xavier Cooper. There's size and speed on all three levels.

Instead of being tricky and taking chances out of outmanned necessity, the Cougs' defense in 2013 has the potential to just line up and play. That should help stem the tide of explosion plays it yielded last fall.

In fact, the primary goal during spring practices was to keep the scheme basic so guys could play fast and build confidence. Last year, there was a getting-to-know-you feel with new coach Mike Leach and new defensive coordinator Mike Breske.

"This spring, we just hit it running," Breske said. "We had a tremendous spring."

The truth -- and it feels weird asserting it -- is that the Cougs' defense looked worse than it was last year because Leach's offense was so underwhelming. Washington State averaged 20.4 points per game, which ranked 11th in the conference, and it was 10th in time of possession.

It's one thing to rank low in time of possession when you're Oregon or Arizona, averaging 49.5 and 38.2 points per game, as those two did. It's another thing when your lack of possession time is due to not making first downs and touchdowns.

The first question in 2013 is replacing Long. That's not going to happen with one guy. While Logan Mayes is the frontrunner to take over at "buck" linebacker, there's a reason he was one of five guys listed there on the post spring depth chart. Breske said Kache Palacio and Ivan McLennan had "great springs," adding, "There's going to be a lot of competition there."

There's also plenty of competition at linebacker. While Monroe, the unit's chief vocal leader, is set in the middle, Cyrus Coen and Eric Oertel are battling on the strong side and Justin Sagote and Tana Pritchard are doing the same on the weakside.

That's good news. It means Breske has four guys he thinks can play.

"We've got a solid two-deep at 'backer," he said. "I wish it was three-deep."

But Breske is most happy with his defensive line, where Cooper, NT Ioane Gauta and end Matthew Bock front a solid two-deep.

"Our D-line was most impressive coming out of spring ball and will be going into fall camp in terms of changing their bodies, their explosiveness," he said. "We've got much better depth in the D-line than we did a year ago."

As for the secondary, Bucannon leads a veteran unit: All four starters figure to be seniors, though Casey Locker is battling sophomore Taylor Taliulu at strong safety. Cornerbacks Damante Horton, Anthony Carpenter and Nolan Washington are all experienced, though redshirt freshman Rahmel Dockery could get into the mix.

Turning up the pressure remains Breske's chief goal -- the Cougars grabbed 15 interceptions and recorded 92 tackles for a loss in 2012 -- but without the offsetting explosion plays.

When asked if he saw the potential for dramatic improvement, Breske said, "You hit it right on the head."

So perhaps the Cougs' defense merits more than a preseason, "Neh."