PULLMAN – There were times last season when Washington State’s secondary had more cover-your-eyes injuries than an MMA undercard.
Three broken legs, a couple torn muscles, two busted up shoulders and assorted sprains and strains threw the group into disarray.
Meanwhile, over on the scout team, a quartet of freshmen were wearing redshirts – cornerbacks Anthony Carpenter and Nolan Washington and safeties Casey Locker and Jamal Atofau. And yes, there was temptation to burn those shirts.
“But we knew at the time they needed to mature, so that they could be ready physically,” said Jody Sears, WSU’s co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach.
So the temptation was resisted. And the reward should come this year, especially at the cornerback position.
“We’re starting to get some depth,” Sears said, “and guys are developing.”
With Carpenter and Washington joining returnees Daniel Simmons, who lost time last year with one of the broken legs, Aire Justin, who battled a quad strain, Terrance Hayward and Anthony Martinez, the Cougars are three deep at two spots they struggled to cover in some games last season.
Even the loss of Brandon Jones, who started all 12 games last season but was dismissed from the team after an off-season incident, hasn’t seemed to hurt.
Mainly because Carpenter and Washington have grown into their roles.
“Last year I was a little bit undersized,” Carpenter admitted. “I had to put on some weight to come out and compete for a Pac-10 team. Once I got that done, I just let my athleticism take over.”
“Last year, as a freshman, I was just excited for practice,” Washington said. “Now I’m prepared and I’m preparing for my first collegiate game, so it’s much more intense. I’m thinking about it every day.”
After 10 practices, there is an obvious improvement in speed throughout the secondary. And, with the improved depth, the competition for playing time has been cranked up. To identify the best group, Sears has no problem moving players from side to side, which Washington likes.
“We can see people in different situations,” said Washington, who is running with the starters while Simmons rounds back into playing shape. “We can get a different feel. Sometimes I’ll be at left corner, and sometimes I’ll be at right corner. It will just help out my game.”
The feel around the entire defense is different. The decimated group was 115th (out of 120 teams) nationally in pass defense last season, giving up 278 yards per game. The corners don’t believe that will repeat.
“Our pursuit is a lot better than last year,” said Carpenter, recruited as a safety but moved to corner last season after showing he had the speed to cover receivers. “Everybody is hungry. We want to get after it. We want to be the best.”
“We can cover up our mistakes,” Washington added. “If someone makes a mistake and if we’re all pursuing to the ball, that will cover it up because of our speed.
“And that helps our swagger. When you have a defense where you have three people around the ball at once, everybody is getting pumped up, and it makes us a great tackling team.”
The improved speed allows the Cougar defense to do something it wasn’t able to do consistently last season.
“We’re able to make plays,” Sears said. “Our playmaking ability has just gotten so much better.
“We’re getting more hands on the ball, we’re getting more bodies on bodies and we’re getting people covered up.”