PULLMAN – Because Brandon Rankin wears the number 5, the first reflex is to assume his appearance in the offensive backfield is the result of a safety blitz. Except that safeties can’t get there that fast.
Also, they rarely stand 6-foot-5 and weigh 281 pounds.
“It’s amazing,” said Washington State head coach Paul Wulff, “what one guy can do when he’s that close to the ball. He’s going to make the secondary’s job easier.”
So now the question is this: Can a single-digit defensive lineman reach double-digit sacks?
That would be something – since the Cougars barely managed that many as a team one year ago.
It’s August, and so the hunt is on for autumn’s saviors – and that’s particularly true at college football outposts like Wazzu, where 22 losses over the last two seasons have the needle on the public interest meter in retreat.
Because the drumbeat for Cougar football is so faint, Wulff tries in an understated way to turn up the volume – a tough trick without unduly goosing expectations and putting too much pressure squarely on the backs of the few young playmakers who either have found their way into the program or are on the development track.
He may not need to walk such a tightrope with Rankin, his new defensive tackle and budding Next Big Thing.
“I feel that if I don’t play my best, my defense is not going to benefit,” he said after the first of two practices Tuesday. “I feel the weight, but not from the hype. I put it on myself to carry my defense.”
As it happens, he may not have to.
There is some notion here that if the defensive core – that is to say, the starters and a few key subs – stays more or less in one piece, collectively, the Cougars will be all right. This is still more hope than promise – the per-game yield was nearly 40 points a game last year, remember – but hope is progress, if not a strategy.
In any case, we know from old homework on the subject that the makings of a good defense are grounded in tackles and cornerbacks, and it has been Wazzu’s mistake not to have any standouts in the middle since Outland Trophy winner Rien Long and Jeremey Williams were manufacturing havoc. That was not quite a decade ago.
Who knew they were so hard to find?
In Rankin’s case, the issue wasn’t discovery but delivery.
He was hard to miss at Butte College in California – 26 sacks his sophomore year in 2008 as the Roadrunners went 12-0 and won the state junior college championship. But he also finished nearly that many credits shy of the degree he needed to transfer to an FBS school, and so all the teams that came and sniffed around – USC, Oregon State, LSU – did no more than that. Wazzu signed him anyway, and Wulff pledged his help in whatever regard to help Rankin overcome his academic hurdles.
Rankin had no problem accepting it.
“You can’t be too big-headed to where you can’t ask for help,” he said.
With a support system back home in Shalotte, N.C., that rivaled anything seen in “The Blind Side,” Rankin completed his degree on line. Naturally – there being no secrets in college football – this news spread, and it wasn’t long after that Alabama coach Nick Saban showed up in Shallotte to offer Rankin a scholarship.
Which he turned down. To come to WSU.
“I struggled a lot, but I had people who helped me out and helped me get through it,” Rankin said. “The people at WSU stuck with me. All those other schools came around after I finished, but I was ready to come here. That’s where I felt I was needed and where I could excel.”
Wulff may have been relieved, but mostly he felt reaffirmed.
“You scrap and look for every guy who’s out there,” he said. “We’re not always going to get the guy who’ll give us ‘instant rewards.’ Brandon didn’t get his A.A. right away, but we stayed with him and kept communication open and we knew it may take a while. When Nick Saban offered, he stayed loyal to us.
“He’s a Cougar-type of find.”
He’s talking about the kind he and his staff intend to keep finding, but also in the mold of some of the risks and projects who panned out and helped launch the most successful era of Cougar football back in the mid-1990s. Indeed, Rankin’s journey calls to mind that of the late Leon Bender, another defensive tackle who had to be coaxed and cajoled through several bouts of ineligibility to become a cornerstone of the 1997 Rose Bowl team – and graduated not long thereafter.
That’s setting the bar high. Maybe it’s about time to do that.