This is the seventh of eight position previews of Washington State University’s 2009 football team. Today: Defensive backs. Friday: Special teams.
PULLMAN – It might be easier to dwell on what was lost, not what was gained.
Football games last fall, players over the spring and summer. All those losses hung in the air when Washington State University’s defensive backs came together for the first 2009 practice a couple of weeks ago.
But then you see what was gained.
Strength and speed by redshirt freshman cornerback Daniel Simmons. A new, more-aggressive attitude by junior safety Chima Nwachukwu. And Cal transfer Brandon Jones, a cornerback who competes like a defensive lineman.
No wonder co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball, who also fills the roles of assistant head coach and safeties instructor, says of the secondary, “we’re better than we were.”
He believes so despite losing former starters Alfonso Jackson to graduation, Romeo Pellum to transfer and Devin Giles to team discipline.
It starts at the corners, where Jones impressed last fall in his redshirt season and continued to shine during spring and fall camps, until going down Tuesday with a sprained right ankle. He’s questionable for the Stanford opener in 10 days, but when he’s back, the junior will start.
“B-Jones, he’s done real good over the spring and he had a great summer,” said senior safety Xavier Hicks, who returns for his third season as a starter. “I’m excited to have him out there with me.”
If Jones was expected, Simmons wasn’t. After redshirting last season, the Ontario, Calif., speedster’s emergence over spring and summer has cushioned the blow of the losses.
“He made a change about halfway through winter conditioning, decided he wanted to be the guy and worked his tail off this summer,” Ball said of Simmons, who became a weight-room aficionado. “He’s really come along.”
With Simmons starting, Aire Justin, who was known as Tyrone his first two years in Pullman, now adds experienced depth at the right corner, having started six games last season. Another redshirt freshman, Terrance Hayward, backs up Jones on the other side.
As young as the corners might be, the opposite is true in the middle.
Nwachukwu started at corner as a true freshman, took his lumps last fall learning the safety spot and played both during the spring. With Jones out, however, Nwachukwu may just take his role as the team’s vocal leader to a corner spot. He practiced there Wednesday
“He did a really good job in the offseason leading this program,” Ball said. “He’s really changed. He grew up. … He had to adapt to our system and he’s smart enough to know he needed to change and he changed.”
A Pac-10 all-academic first-team selection in 2008, Nwachukwu serves on student athlete boards for the NCAA, Pac-10 and WSU.
His running mate at safety, Hicks, has had a checkered career with the Cougars, making some big plays on the field and mistakes off – including serving jail time two summers ago for an assault charge and being cited each of the past two years for driving without a valid license, among other issues.
“I’ve put all that stuff behind me,” said Hicks, who was second on the Cougars in tackles (78) last season despite being suspended for the first three games. “You know, life is a rollercoaster and I’m out here for one reason, that’s to win football games. Especially my senior year, I can’t afford any distractions, so that’s the plan.”
WSU does use five defensive backs at times, with redshirt freshman LeAndre Daniels having stepped into that role. Sophomore Tyree Toomer, who had 34 tackles and two sacks from the spot last season, is still in the mix, though he’s been limited this fall by nagging injuries.
Backup safety Eric Block, who is healthy for the first time in his three years in Pullman, has “done a great job,” Ball said. “It’s great to see him healthy. He’s running around, he’s making plays. He’s exactly what we thought he was when he came out of Bellevue.”