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WSU’s secondary young but experienced

Chima Nwachukwu has started 26 games for the Cougars. (Dan Pelle)
Chima Nwachukwu has started 26 games for the Cougars. (Dan Pelle)

Nwachukwu only senior among defensive backs

Note: This is the sixth of eight position previews of Washington State University’s 2010 football team. Today: Defensive backs. Saturday: Linebackers.

PULLMAN – Pass defense is a collaborative effort.

The linemen have to put pressure on the quarterback. The linebackers at times add to the quarterback’s stress, but also must be able to drop into coverage.

But the guys who carry the load – and the focus of the fans – are in the secondary.

The cornerbacks and safeties are the ones running with the receivers, the ones who are given the majority of the blame when a pass is completed or earn the glory on an interception.

They are, quite literally, the last line of the defense. So it’s really not a spot where youth is usually served. Yet, going into a season in which the Washington State University defense is trying to rebound from what was one of its worst years ever statistically, the Cougars will put a young group on the field.

Seven of the 10 top defensive backs are either freshmen or sophomores.

But, in Chris Ball’s way of thinking, that’s a good thing.

“You know, they’re young but they’ve played a lot of snaps,” said Ball, WSU’s co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach. “It’s a solid group. They’re young but they’ve played. We’re sort of young and old, so we’ve got a good combination.”

The most experienced, by a Texas mile, is strong safety Chima Nwachukwu. The senior from Allen, Texas, has started 26 games at cornerback and safety for WSU with 187 career tackles and three interceptions.

But it’s not the stats that tell the Nwachukwu story.

“He has a lot of experience going on his fourth year starting,” said Tyree Toomer, the starting free safety. “I have an experienced starter on the other side who I can trust. He knows how the game goes, how to play the game.

“He’s been through it before. He’s not going to panic.”

“He’s had a really good camp,” Ball said of Nwachukwu. “His experience has really helped him.”

From there, the experience drops, with cornerback Aire Justin, who has battled a balky hamstring much of camp, next with nine career starts.

But Toomer and cornerbacks Daniel Simmons, who also had a sore hamstring, and Terrance Hayward have played often.

Toomer, who had to sit out last season after undergoing surgery on his pectoral muscle, brings an added dimension to the secondary.

“He’s faster,” Ball said. “Tyree also is a student of the game. He’s up there studying tape all the time. He understands the defense. We’re expecting some big things out of him.”

The third safety was expected to be LeAndre Daniels, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound redshirt sophomore. But Daniels suffered a neck injury in camp and is out indefinitely.

“It would have been nice to have his experience,” Ball said.

Experience is in short supply with the rest of the group, with redshirt freshmen Nolan Washington and Anthony Carpenter vying for starting corner spots and true freshmen Damante Horton and Deone Bucannon being counted on at corner and safety, respectively.

“After playing with them in the spring and camp, I’ve gained trust,” Toomer said of the younger group. “The best I can do for them is to prepare them mentally for the game. They haven’t been through it. It can be overwhelming.”

They’ll find that out soon enough.

Ball, who is in second stint as a Cougar secondary coach, believes they will handle it, and have the potential to be counted among the best of WSU’s recent past – if they learn one lesson.

“The ones we had here when we were here before were good ones,” Ball said, alluding to the likes of Hamza Abdullah, Erik Coleman, Jason David, Eric Frampton, Lamont Thompson and Marcus Trufant, all NFL players.

“To get to that level, what our young kids have got to understand, the difference between those six and everybody else, is that they worked harder than everybody else,” Ball added. “When they showed up to practice, they outworked everybody. That’s what we’re trying to instill in these young guys.”

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