PULLMAN – Until the members of Washington State’s defensive backfield have a chance to create their legacies, the Cougars’ secondary will be recognized for who left rather than who remained.
Gone is first team All-American Deone Bucannon, soon to be racking up linebacker-line tackle totals for an undetermined NFL team. Gone is Damante Horton, whose three interceptions returned for touchdowns led the nation.
Gone are Nolan Washington and Casey Locker, seniors who played their best ball in the twilights of their careers.
Replacing them is a smattering of underclassmen and junior Taylor Taliulu, one of just two returnees in the secondary to start a game.
“We’ve got some good quickness to work with (but) we’ve got to polish it up,” coach Mike Leach said. “We’re unpolished but we’re quick and we’re getting better.”
While the WSU offense simply needs a young offensive line to jell this spring so quarterback Connor Halliday has ample time to find his plethora of returning weapons at the skill positions, the defense is relying on the secondary becoming a passable unit over a short time to give it a chance in the pass-happy Pac-12.
Results have been mixed. Freshman Marcellus Pippins, who sat out last season after graduating from high school in 2012, has shown playmaking ability as well as rustiness. He’ll likely be called upon to play in the fall, giving him a very short window in which to get used to the college game.
“We’re learning right now. We’re not where we need to be right now,” defensive coordinator Mike Breske said. “The first group has looked pretty solid, we just need more reps because they haven’t had a lot.”
Sophomore Isaac Dotson, penciled in as Bucannon’s replacement at strong safety, came to WSU as a quarterback. The switch has given him an advantage in reading offenses, but he still has to get used to thinking of himself as a defender.
“It’s going well. At first it was a little slow but (I have had) help from coach Breske and my teammates back there,” Dotson said. “They’ve been doing a lot to help me out and get me used to running with the defense and kind of changed my mindset to the dark side, so it’s been good.”
After receiving just one carry all season, running back Theron West broke out in the New Mexico Bowl, rushing for 17 yards on three carries, catching three passes for 50 yards and a score, and blocking a kick as well. West has continued to play well in spring practices, prompting Leach to call him currently the most explosive running back on the team.
Still, incumbent starter Marcus Mason played well at the end of the season, and redshirt freshmen Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks appear ready to challenge for playing time.
“It’s a battle right now with all the running backs,” West said. “It’s a battle and we all love it. It keeps us excited, we just all roll in, every day we take turns on scout team, each and every single one of us. We just compete, compete, compete, compete and we’re going to battle it out.”