PULLMAN -- At six-feet, five-inches and several biscuits more than 300 pounds, Joe Salave'a still looks every bit the nose tackle that pancaked over-matched offensive linemen during his nine-year NFL career.
Now a defensive line coach with Mike Leach at Washington State University, the soft-spoken Samoan faces a task as mammoth as his hulking frame -- preparing his inexperienced players for Pac-12 Conference football.Former nose tackle Anthony Laurenzi's departure coupled with Travis Long's move to "buck" linebacker has Salave'a searching for a trio of capable defensive linemen to anchor WSU's retooled 3-4 defense.
He gave Matthew Bock and Steven Hoffart a majority of practice reps at both defensive tackle spots while Ioane Gauta served as nose tackle during most of fall camp. The three have just seven combined stops in their adolescent college careers.
However, recent play would indicate a big increase in production, according to Salave'a.
"We've made tremendous strides," the gregarious coach said last week when asked to assess the defensive line's performance through fall camp. "The biggest thing is just trying to maximize every guy's opportunity and strength, and we've been able to do that so far."
Salave'a has rotated up to eight players at various spots on the line while trying to find a competent lineup. It's no secret to opponents that Long will drop into a two-point stance on occasion to help against the run. The second-team All-Pac-12 selection played defensive end his first three years in Pullman while helping the Cougars rank seventh in rushing defense in 2011.
Salave'a, an Arizona grad who played in 100 NFL games for three teams that included 28 starts, said his career helped mold the unit into something resembling a formidable front seven. Six years removed from his final stint with the Washington Redskins, the 37-year-old still remembers what it's like to be a player.
“You try to jam all those years and all those practices and hours all into small, short seasons,” he said of how his time in the NFL helped shape him as a coach. “From the start of spring to now I’ve tried to put all my experiences for what (WSU players will) find themselves in, so they can avoid those mistakes.”
His resumé includes a 2004 season with Washington that included 30 tackles and a pair of sacks. He also knows first-hand the toll football takes on the mind and body.
"I can have an idea when they’re not feeling well and when they’re not giving it their all,” he said. “That’s one thing about having played — you get to gauge whether they’re going full speed or just occupying space.”
Questions abound on the line entering Thursday's 7:15 p.m. season opener at BYU. That's no surprise considering the scheme change and overall absence of depth.
Salave'a said the Cougars' shift to a 3-4 necessitated a different mentality from his players. In 2011, WSU recorded just 17 sacks in 12 games -- 94th among FBS schools.
“I think it’s more of a controlled aggression,” Salave’a said of his defensive linemen’s attitude when they switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in the spring. “In a three-man front, now you’re more under control. It’s more about occupying your area. The great thing about it is you get to feature different looks from both sides (of the field).”
Salave'a will need to squeeze every ounce of aggression out of a crew that's been without tackles Adam Coerper andXavier Cooper for much of fall camp. Both have been seen riding stationary bikes along the sidelines. Coerper, a returning contributor from the 2011 squad, returned to practice last week. Cooper is in a walking boot.
Leach declines to discuss injuries with the media, but losing Cooper could cripple an already thin defensive line.
Depth issues aside, Salave'a expects his linemen to implement defensive coordinator Mike Breske's aggressive, blitz-heavy defense. He told reporters Friday he asks his players to avoid becoming as immobile as a traffic cone.
He doesn't want them to be like waterfowl, either.
“We’re not going to be sitting ducks. We’re playing to the strength of our guys.That’s athleticism and their ability to run around.”