PULLMAN – From his first day in Pullman, Washington State football coach Paul Wulff made it clear he believes a successful program is built on a foundation of high school recruits.
Identify players young, get them in the program, build them up, teach them your way and then turn them loose.
But when holes develop in that foundation, they have to be patched. And that’s when the Cougars turn to the junior college ranks.
Last year, three of WSU’s starting offensive linemen were junior college transfers. Defensive tackle Brandon Rankin jumped into the starting lineup after a JC apprenticeship. Receiver Isaiah Barton caught 19 passes in his first year out of JC.
That course isn’t without its pitfalls, but the reward can be an upgrade at a crucial spot – if the player can make the adjustment quickly enough.
“For anybody to come in and contribute their first year, it’s just a big uphill battle,” Wulff said, “regardless of whether you are a junior college player or a high school player.”
Daunting task or not, the Cougars are asking another JC transfer to conquer that hill and, if Ian Knight can, WSU will have found the pass-rushing defensive end it has been searching for over the past three years.
Knight, a 6-foot-2, 238-pound junior, played the past season at Butler County Community College in El Dorado, Kan., where he had 56 tackles, including 5.5 sacks and 14.5 for loss.
Though undersized for the Pac-12, Knight’s quickness and speed – he ran the 110 hurdles and the 200 in high school – have earned him the starting weak side end spot since he stepped on campus last spring.
Not that the new environment hasn’t come without a few bumps.
“The biggest adjustment is the game speed, combined with the technique being taught,” Knight said Monday after the Cougars’ second practice of preseason camp. “Everywhere you go, you’re going to be taught a different technique.”
It’s the technique part that sometimes trips up JC transfers according to WSU defensive line coach Todd Howard.
“He has to be brought up to speed on playing the techniques that are taught,” said Howard, in his first year at WSU after a long stint in the same position at UCLA. “He has to be able to learn the system and be able to (learn to) play fast.
“Sometimes in JC, just like high school, you may have dominant ability at that level and a lot of times, when you have dominant ability at a level, you’re less inclined to play with the proper technique because you can win anyway.”
That’s not something Knight is guilty of. He likes learning, on and off the field, and has taken to Howard’s teaching.
“You just have to pick it up as fast as you can,” Knight said, admitting at times the transition has been tough. “If it was easy, everybody would do it.”
But there is more to the jump from a two-year school to a BCS university than on-field demands.
“You’ve got to make sure you are at certain places at certain times,” said Rankin, who went through growing pains last season. “We have to get the job done on and off the field, because this is a full-time job here.
“At JC it wasn’t like that. You went to school and you played football. There’s more to it here.”
Which is fine with Knight. The work put in on the practice field, watching video, in the classroom, with the weights, it all has a reward. He’s going to be playing football in the Pac-12.
“The work we put in is definitely a lot harder,” he said, “but I know when it comes to game days … it’s going to be worth it. There’s no feeling like being out on that field.”