PULLMAN – No matter how you parse it, the 2009 football season wasn’t kind to the Washington State University defensive unit.
Sure, injuries didn’t help. Nor did the offense’s 31 turnovers. But the bottom line was simple: Out of 120 bowl subdivision teams, WSU was 120th – last – in total defense (512 yards per game) and 118th in scoring defense (38.5 points per game).
Changes had to be made.
They were. And this spring they are being implemented.
“We wanted to fit our players; to match our ability,” co-defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Chris Ball said Monday following the Cougars’ early morning practice, the first in the last week of spring drills. “What can we do and what can’t we do? It fits what we have.”
The overall emphasis this spring has been to raise the defensive aggression. But just saying you want to be more forceful doesn’t get it done.
The plan is to put more pressure on the quarterback by better defining roles up front.
“What we are doing allows the defensive line to play a lot more aggressive,” Ball explained.
There is more freedom for the rush end – sophomore Travis Long with the starting unit – and an attacking tackle – junior college transfer Brandon Rankin. The other two down linemen, tackle Bernard Wolfgramm and end Kevin Kooyman, are more attuned to controlling the rushing.
“In the beginning, I was kind of upset, because I kind of wanted to be the standup end,” said Kooyman, a fifth-year senior. “Right now, I like it a lot, because I don’t have to worry about the tight end being on my side most of the time. So when it’s pass, I don’t have to worry about a tight end blocking me. I like how it’s working out.”
With the defensive line and a linebacking corps with more speed and blitzing ability – from Alex Hoffman-Ellis, converted safety Myron Beck, reserve Andre Barrington and possibly incoming four-star freshman C.J. Mizell – the defensive backs are working on breaking more aggressively on the ball.
“I think it starts with (strength coach Darin) Lovat,” said sophomore cornerback Daniel Simmons. “He got us more explosive over the winter and it helps out a lot. And the DBs are working a lot of drills where we get out of our breaks faster; exploding out of our breaks.
“And as a whole, we’re just getting more savvy out there.”
“We’re just getting after it,” Kooyman said of the defensive line. “We’re just being physical because that’s the main thing we have to do. It all starts up front.”
Ball sees the two – pass rush and coverage – working together to improve on the 24 turnovers forced by WSU’s defense last season.
“When we were really good in the secondary, we were leading the Pac-10 in sacks,” said Ball, mentioning 2003, when WSU’s defense had 24 interceptions and 50 sacks.
A dozen of the 15 allowed spring practices are done. How have the Cougars taken to the new schemes?
“If you take our starters, I definitely think we’re right where we want to be,” Ball said. “The twos (backups), have to come along a little bit quicker, because they are going to have to play, obviously. But, yeah, I feel good about it.”
Part of the reason is Ball believes some of the backups have made their marks – along with the most veteran guy on the line.
“(Sekope) Kaufusi is playing really well,” Ball said of Long’s backup at end. “(Freshman tackle) Justin Clayton is playing really well. He’s really smart, very coachable and very athletic, much more than you might think.
“And of course, Kooyman. It’s easy to see we’re a different defense when he’s out there.”
That, ultimately, is the goal.