PULLMAN — It was apparent even in 2010 the Cougars had unearthed a future impact player in safety Deone Bucannon.
Starting in place of injured Chima Nwachukwu, Bucannon racked up 16 tackles against Arizona, the most ever by a WSU freshman.
He has been one of the Cougars’ best players ever since.
Bucannon is a defensive back of the big-hitter variety, whose greatest weakness has been a penchant for picking up flags while making mouthpiece-rattling hits. But as unkind as the safety is on the field, he is polite and soft-spoken when his pads come off, and he is deferential when talking about his breakout game.
“We had good linebackers on that team that, fortunately for me, had faith in me as a freshman,” said Bucannon, recently named a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist, given to the top defensive back in college football. “So that made it a lot easier for me, even though I didn’t know what I was doing out there. I was a freshman — I barely knew the plays — but they led me along the way.”
Now a senior and a leader of the WSU defense, Bucannon is no longer a precocious 18-year-old. What he is is one of the top safety prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.
“Statistically what’s he done, he’s had a tremendous year, and (is) one of our leaders on defense and has to be,” defensive coordinator Mike Breske said. “A lot of his leadership is through his play, especially for the young guys to see. And we ask more of him, more of him, more of him.”
Based on his numbers, Bucannon is one of the most versatile defenders in the conference. Like any good safety, he excels in pass coverage, as evidenced by his five interceptions, which rank second in the Pac-12 Conference. But what sets Bucannon apart are his conference-leading 96 tackles — he is the only defensive back in the Pac-12’s top five tacklers.
“You want to have both, as long as they stay within themselves, just do what they do best,” said coach Mike Leach, whose team hosts Utah on Saturday at Martin Stadium (12:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks). “And he’s good at the physical part of it.”
Breske added that Bucannon’s gaudy tackle numbers are a result of his ability to finish plays and keep opposing offenses from big gains. With Bucannon acting as a safety net, the rest of the defense is able to take more chances, which has translated into 23 turnovers, fourth in the Pac-12.
The Cougars recovered a pair of fumbles in their stunning 24-17 road victory over Arizona on Saturday. Although the Wildcats’ Ka’Deem Carey, the nation’s second-leading ball carrier, rushed for 132 yards, he was never able to break the big one. Bucannon’s seven tackles from the secondary helped limit Carey to a single touchdown.