PULLMAN – Before spring football practice began, Washington State University coach Paul Wulff made it clear to his team how many returning starters there were.
Everyone, Wulff told them earlier this week, was No. 2 at their position.
Competition was crucial, especially considering the Cougars were coming off a 1-11 record last season.
The first two days, it’s obvious no group has taken up Wulff’s challenge quicker than the secondary.
The defense’s back four returns no one who started all 12 games last year when WSU finished last in the Pac-10 in pass defense, yielding 275.6 yards per game. But there’s potential.
“We’re really talented in the secondary, and I’m really excited about it,” said the group’s veteran, safety Chima Nwachukwu, after Friday’s more than two-hour workout. “We’ve got guys who can cover, guys that can run. I think we’ve got a complete group back there.”
Nwachukwu is the one guy who can give some perspective concerning the secondary, having stepped into the starting lineup at cornerback fresh out of Allen, Texas.
He’s a strong safety now, and the leader of a group that includes one other upperclassman (cornerback Aire Justin). Yet they don’t want to be considered young.
“The great thing about them being young is they’ve played,” co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball said. “They’ve played a lot of snaps. The excuse of being young really isn’t there.”
Injuries went through the unit like a scythe last season, with Tyree Toomer missing the entire season with a muscle injury, LeAndre Daniels and Daniel Simmons breaking legs during the season and Jay Matthews limited by a shoulder dislocation. Even Nwachukwu missed three games with a high-ankle sprain. All are back and healthy.
Their injuries gave playing time to freshmen Terrance Hayward and Kyle McCartney and they’re joined by four touted freshmen who wore red shirts last season.
“If we can stay healthy, we have good depth,” Nwachukwu said. “If a No. 1 goes down, it won’t be that far away with the No. 2.”
“We have really good talent, more than we’ve had in the past,” Ball said.
And most of it has seen action.
“They’ve gotten enough snaps to be decent,” Ball said. “They’re athletic, they’re physical, confident and they have a very good understanding of the defense, which is big.”
When they need guidance, they have Nwachukwu, who represents WSU on an NCAA student-athlete committee and leads on the field. It’s a role modeled to near perfection by current NFL safety Husain Abdullah when Nwachukwu was a freshman.
“He was a real big role model to me,” Nwachukwu said, “though I only played with him a year. He led through his actions and that’s what really stood out. You would watch the guy and he would be doing what he was preaching.
“When he would say anything to you, you would listen, because you knew he was doing things right.”