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WSU spring football: Cougars’ defense amps up pressure on quarterbacks

WSU head coach Mike Leach wants more pressure from his defense. (FILE)
WSU head coach Mike Leach wants more pressure from his defense. (FILE)

PULLMAN – When evaluating candidates for the vacant defensive coordinator position following the 2014 football season, Mike Leach had a general idea of the qualities he was looking for in the defense’s new leader.

He preferred an odd-front – three defensive linemen with their hands down – and recruiting ability was a priority. More than anything else, he wanted a coach who would bring a lot of pressure.

More to the point, Leach was looking for the kind of pressure on the quarterback that leads to the interceptions that were practically nonexistent last year – just three in 429 passes against – and that can protect a young secondary that is still bound to be error-prone.

New defensive coordinator Alex Grinch promised pressure from his defense and is starting to deliver.

While there was a learning curve for the defenders, who spent the first few practices simply trying to make sure they were standing in the right spots, it has been apparent for about a week that the coaching is starting to sink in.

In Saturday’s scrimmage the defense collected nine sacks over 111 plays, a few of them coming against WSU’s veteran first-string offensive line, which returns all five starters from last season.

That breakthrough has carried over into the last week of practice, with the defense collecting six more sacks during Tuesday’s team period and another three on Thursday.

All of a sudden, it’s the offense doing up-downs at the end of drills.

Leading the pass rush has been the Rush linebackers – the designation is a giveaway. The personnel is the same as the Buck linebacker that former coordinator Mike Breske employed last season, and the position still typically lines up at or near the line of scrimmage, almost like a fourth defensive lineman.

But now, they don’t act like one.

“It’s different because at Buck we would go in a three-point stance a lot, but now we’re always standing up,” said Ivan McLennan, who led the Cougars with three sacks during the scrimmage. “We drop (back in coverage) a little bit more and there’s more blitzes and stuff from that position.”

The Rush linebackers also say that they’re being asked to do more in pass coverage than under the previous scheme. New outside linebackers coach Roy Manning can often be seen at practice working with players on their backpedals.

While Kache Palacio, last year’s starting Buck, has been starting at Rush as well, McLennan has been consistently getting in the faces of WSU’s quarterbacks, and Manning likes the potential of sophomore Dylan Hanser.

“He’s been doing a good job. Real long kid, real tall kid and that causes problems at that edge because he can cover ground in fewer steps than the other guy,” said Manning of Hanser, who stands 6-foot-4, 224 pounds and has a frame to carry more weight.

Hanser was credited with 2.5 sacks during Saturday’s scrimmage.

Manning, another first-year coach for the Cougars, said that going against the abnormally wide splits of WSU’s offensive is like altitude training for the pass-rushers, who must take longer routes to the quarterback than they likely will all season.

Like Grinch, Manning is an animated coach in practice. McLennan alluded to their energy and youth – both coaches are years away from their 40s – as being reasons the defense is playing faster.

Because of the yin and yang inherent to playing against one’s own teammates, offensive line coach Clay McGuire’s group is the unit most affected by the pass-rusher’s success.

“There’s high energy,” McGuire said. “These guys are really running around there competing hard. There’s high energy. You’re seeing a bunch of plays made now where they’re right there and they finish them.”

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