PULLMAN – In his year away from the game, Tracy Claeys kept things simple.
For the first time in more than two decades, he was able to spend extended time in his rural hometown of Clay Center, Kansas. There, Claeys rediscovered his affinity for bank line fishing – “something that was illegal in Minnesota,” he noted. He spent the weekends with his mother, hunting for the best bargain at local garage sales and auctions.
For nearly a year after winning the 2016 Holiday Bowl with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Claeys was mostly able to stay clear of the hustle and bustle of the college football business. He and his brother purchased cattle together.
“Obviously a much slower-paced life,” Claeys said, “but it was a great time to catch up with my family.”
Two weeks ago, Claeys officially returned to the only profession he’s ever truly known when he was hired as Washington State’s defensive coordinator. Claeys replaces Alex Grinch, who steadily improved the Cougars’ defensive numbers for three seasons and peaked in 2017 before accepting a job at Ohio State, where he’s expected to become the Buckeyes’ co-defensive coordinator.
His yearlong respite now over, Claeys has been busy the past few weeks developing new recruiting ties in a part of the country that’s relatively unfamiliar to a lifelong Midwesterner. He’s learning the names, personalities and skill sets of the players he’ll begin coaching in a few months from now. Adjusting to the Pacific time zone has even been something of a challenge.
“I’m ready to go at 5 in the morning now and everyone else is still in bed,” Claeys said. “At the same time, by 8:30 at night I’m kind of worn out right now, so it’d be interesting to see how long it takes my body to adjust.”
To compensate, Claeys is approaching his new duties as defensive coordinator to the way he approached his short hiatus from the game. He plans to keep things simple.
For one, Claeys won’t introduce new terminology to WSU’s defensive players. He’ll install many of his own schemes and sets, but he’s adopting the Cougars’ lingo.
“That way the kids and the staff that are here,” he said, “they don’t have to relearn everything.”
Grinch’s Cougars worked out of a 3-4 front with a Rush linebacker. Claeys is known to run the opposite, a 4-3 scheme, but he said there’s a time and place for both and whichever model the Cougars go with will often depend on the look they get from their opponent.
In the defensive backfield, Grinch relied heavily on both quarters coverage and man coverage, “so there’s a lot of things in the secondary they did the same (as us).”
He’ll also bring in some fresh ideas.
Under Grinch, WSU relied on an algorithm that said if a team forces the opponent to turn the ball over twice per game, or 24 times per season, it’d have a good chance of winning at least nine games. The formula held true for the Cougars in 2017 – they achieved 28 turnovers and went 9-4 – but Claeys is generally more concerned about “takeaways,” which doesn’t have to be synonymous with “turnovers.”
“There’s no question we’re going to go after the turnovers,” he said, “but at the same time I don’t want to be a bad defense that’s going to rely on just the other team turning the ball over all the time.”
Claeys also intends to prioritize defense in the red zone – a shaky area of the field for the Cougars last season. Although they managed to finish 16th nationally in scoring defense, 103 other teams in the FBS were better in the red zone and WSU allowed the opposition to score 87.8 percent of the time.
“It’s simple, a lot of things are simple ideas – if you make teams at least kick field goals when they’re in the red zone, it gives you an opportunity to win in the fourth quarter,” Claeys said.
“Of all the stats, that’s probably the one that stuck out to me, that can use the most improvement. We need to play better in the red zone. That’s where we’ll practice a lot.”
A disciple of former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, Claeys is reuniting with another old colleague in Pullman: WSU defensive line coach Jeff Phelps. The two formed a winning gameplan to shut down Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense in the Holiday Bowl two years ago and Leach snagged Phelps for his D-line vacancy when former position coach Joe Salave’a left for Oregon.
“I trust him with my life,” Claeys said of Phelps. “We hired him at Northern Illinois and we’re good friends and he’s a great coach. He had a lot of influence on my decision to come here as much as I’m sure he had on Coach Leach to offer it.”
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