PULLMAN – There is no position group on Washington State’s football team that has better experienced the tumult of the past three seasons than the Cougars’ secondary.
Deone Bucannon, a senior free safety and the most proven member of WSU’s defense, has started 30 games in his career, including eight as a true freshman in 2010 and 11 in each of the past two seasons.
Nolan Washington, a fifth-year senior, is one of a few remaining souls who witnessed the 1-11 debacle of 2009. Since then, he’s started 22 games at cornerback. Damante Horton, also a senior, has 17 starts to his name, and Casey Locker, another fifth-year player, has 12 starts.
So, if defensive coordinator Mike Breske so chooses, he can begin the season with a defensive backfield that in three years has combined for 81 starts. Their overall games-played total is much higher.
But their results haven’t been indicative of an experienced group. The Cougars’ defense was considerably better last season than it has been during any year in recent memory, but the secondary remained a concern: WSU finished 93rd in pass defense efficiency – though even that was up from 111th the year before – and 98th in overall pass defense.
For a handful of this season’s contributors, this is their last chance to make sure they’re remembered fondly.
“This year,” said Washington, “we want to change the legacy that has been the past few years.”
Breske said early in camp that Washington and Horton had each separated themselves from the pack at cornerback, which was relatively unsurprising considering both are seniors and WSU’s depth isn’t all that strong behind them.
But it could be in the near future. Horton missed a few practices recently after suffering an unspecified injury to his right side, though he’s been suiting up and participated fully in WSU’s no-contact practice on Sunday night.
If Horton is healthy, it’s safe to assume he’ll likely start. If not, true freshman Daquawn Brown has been one of WSU’s most impressive players during camp, and has been taking the No. 1 reps at corner with Horton sidelined.
Whether Horton starts or doesn’t, Brown is going to play. Especially in what is expected to be a hot, sticky environment at Auburn for the Cougars’ Aug. 31 opener.
“There’s some type of offenses you can get by with two, maybe three,” Breske said. “This first game, we’re going to need four.”
The Cougars lost perhaps their best corner from last season, Daniel Simmons, to graduation. But with Washington fully healthy for the first time in quite a while, the Cougars could be looking at a different kind of player than they saw last season.
“When you don’t practice, if you’re competing for a starting position, the people behind you are going to get that chance to start,” Washington said. “This year, being able to practice every day, I’ve been able to get better and hold my spot down for the majority of the camp.”
Bucannon “sets the tone,” Breske said, on the back end of WSU’s defense at safety. He led the Cougars in tackles a year ago, and his 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame is now augmented by the kind of biceps most frequently seen on cage fighters.
More consistency at the corner position would be a big help to Bucannon, who played alongside a few different corners last season.
“It was difficult last year,” Bucannon said. “But it’s in the past now, and I’m never going to complain about what the coaches decide.”
With Bucannon at safety could be a trio of players. Sophomore Taylor Taliulu started the first two games of his college career last season, but fell out of favor with Breske and was mostly a special-teams contributor thereafter. He’s been seeing the bulk of the reps with the No. 1 unit recently, though senior Anthony Carpenter – himself a 7-game starter at corner last season – has also spent time with the No. 1 group after moving to safety, and Locker has, too.
In the mix
Charleston White, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound freshman from Amarillo, Texas, has stepped into the No. 2 defense with Brown playing with the ones. He’ll likely be on the travel squad and should compete for playing time.
So, too, could fourth-year junior Tracy Clark, who has played a significant number of snaps with the No. 2 defense after being passed on the depth chart by Rahmel Dockery during spring. Dockery left the team last week.
Keep an eye on
Mitchell Peterson will likely make most of his contributions on special teams, but the fourth-year junior is a try-hard guy who might see the field if injuries pile up in front of him. Alex Jackson, a redshirt freshman, impressed coaches on scout team last season. His speed and athleticism make him an option at corner.
Reason for optimism
It’s hard to beat WSU’s experience level in the defensive backfield, with five seniors – three of them fifth-year players – who have played a bunch of Pac-12 football. And Bucannon could be one of the best safeties in the league.
Cause for concern
This group was experienced last year, too, but still finished as one of the conference’s worst pass defenses.