PULLMAN – Tracy Claeys vowed not to make wholesale changes to Washington State’s defense when he was hired as Mike Leach’s new defensive coordinator back in January.
Eight months later, WSU’s identity on that side of the ball doesn’t look much different than it did a year ago, and neither are the numbers the defense has churned out through two games.
The Cougars, albeit having only seen two pedestrian Mountain West offenses to this point – Wyoming and San Jose State – rank third nationally in yards allowed per game (143.5), fifth in passing yards allowed (91 ypg) and tied for 13th in scoring defense (9.5 points per game allowed).
WSU’s “Speed D” mantra has outlasted the defensive coordinator who coined it, and Claeys has made an effort to retain the verbiage and terminology that was used under his predecessor, Alex Grinch, hoping it’ll eliminate confusion and reduce the learning curve that would typically come with a DC change.
While Claeys has left most things untouched, there has been one change.
Rather than watch games from the sideline, Claeys prefers to observe from the press box – and always has. Grinch, WSU’s DC from 2015-17, spent one year coordinating from the booth before moving to the field early on in the 2016 season. He remained there through the end of the 2017 season before accepting a position at Ohio State.
“Well … they have kind of a different style,” Leach said, comparing Grinch and Claeys. “I wanted Alex on the field because Alex was kind of the voice of the whole defense. I mean if they’re going to hear from Alex all week long, then I wanted them to hear it on Saturday.”
Claeys is more on the soft-spoken side and prefers to relay his coaching lessons to the position coaches in meeting rooms, then allow them to instruct players in practices and games. Unlike Grinch, who doubled as the Cougars’ secondary coach, Claeys also isn’t tied to a singular position group.
When the NCAA passed legislation allowing teams to hire a 10th assistant coach, the Cougars reworked their defensive staff and promoted Darcel McBath to coach cornerbacks. Now WSU has a single coach designated to each unit: defensive line, inside linebackers, outside linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks.
“Tracy kind of leaves it to the assistants,” Leach said. “Coordinates it in the board room and stuff like that. In other words, the assistant of each group is kind of the voice of them.”
“Because they coach those kids all week, so it doesn’t make any sense to me to have the guys that coach them all week go to the box, then have somebody else coach them on game day,” Claeys said. “So that’s another big reason.”
Claeys also thinks coaches tend to get wrapped up in the excitement and emotion of the game when they’re on the sideline. The booth provides a calmer atmosphere that can be more conducive for a coach as he’s processing everything that’s happening in a game.
“You get down on the field, and we’re all competitive if you coach,” Claeys said. “And you see a mistake or something like that, and you worry about correcting a mistake, and next thing you know, the offense is up on the line snapping the ball again. So by going up to the box, you remove yourself from that competitive part of it, and for me it helps me think two or three plays ahead, and what we’re going to do substitution-wise.”
Having a DC in the box versus having him on the sideline doesn’t seem to make a difference to players, who’ve always communicated with their position coaches on the sideline.
“I think the assistant coaches are communicating a little bit more, but last year was the same,” linebacker Jahad Woods said. “They were still talking a lot. So nothing really changed.”
“It might be new to the new guys that have never been around that, but he does a great job in the box telling the coaches what we need to do, and then our coaches translate it to us.” nickel Hunter Dale added.