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WSU football: Nailing down technique emphasis for defensive backs

WSU cornerback Charleston White has been limited in practice. (Tyler Tjomsland)
WSU cornerback Charleston White has been limited in practice. (Tyler Tjomsland)

This is the first of eight position previews looking at WSU’s position-by-position prospects for the upcoming season. Today: Defensive backs. Monday: Linebackers.

PULLMAN – Just 10 months ago, Marcellus Pippins was a freshman cornerback making his debut at the tail end of Washington State’s win over Oregon State.

He started the Cougars’ final two games, playing well against Arizona State and Washington.

With just two weeks left before his sophomore season begins against Portland State, Pippins finds himself in the position of preparing another freshman cornerback to assume the same early-career responsibilities that he did.

Darrien Molton, recently of Temecula, California’s Chaparral High, moved quickly up the depth chart after arriving at WSU for preseason camp, settling in as a second-string cornerback. Molton has been a starting cornerback in practice for about a week, since Charleston White, the usual starter, has been limited.

Even assuming White returns in time to start against the Vikings, and that the team’s claims of perennial perfect health hold true, it’s reasonable to expect that Molton will assume the role at some point this season, considering six different players started for WSU at cornerback in 2014.

So, what advice can Pippins bequeath to the slightly younger player to accelerate his learning curve?

“It’s going to be a little bit faster, dudes are going to be bigger out here,” Pippins said. “I’m just telling him to play his game and make sure his technique is perfect. At this level, technique is everything.”

Molton’s not the only one who will be focusing on technique in preparation for the upcoming season. First-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who also coaches the defensive backs, blames technique more than tentativeness for the secondary’s struggles last year, when it intercepted just one pass, by White, against FCS opponent PSU.

“I think if anything, with secondary guys, they’re willing to take risks I’m not willing to take,” Grinch said. “We tell them their responsibility is to keep the ball in front and everything else is after that.”

The key to taking away more passes, says Grinch, is to fix the players “eyes” – make sure that they’re looking at the quarterback or the player they are matched up against at the correct time so that they can react appropriately to certain indicators that give away where the ball will be thrown and when it will arrive.

Molton and other first-year defenders don’t have much catching up to do. Senior safety Taylor Taliulu is the only player in the expected two-deeps at safety or cornerback with more than a year’s playing experience at the FBS level.

That inexperience will surely frustrate Grinch at times, but it also means he can shape players’ knowledge and technique without competing with previously learned conflicting information. It also allows him to focus on the best athletes, without sacrificing speed and ability for experience.

Molton and safety Shalom Luani have quickly risen into the two-deeps at their respective positions, and Calvin Green is settling in at safety, despite spending all of his freshman season at wide receiver.

Green has the athletic talents to make an impact on defense and would have just as much time working with Grinch as any of his teammates, except a family matter caused him to miss the start of preseason camp.

“He’s one of the fastest guys on the team and he’s a strong physical guy, turns his hips real quick,” head coach Mike Leach said. “I think he’ll do a good job, interested to see how he does over there.”

For now, Isaac Dotson appears to be the likely starter at free safety, with Taylor Taliu at strong safety. But the Cougars have also experimented with sliding Dotson over to nickelback – a starter in Grinch’s defensive scheme – in place of Darius Lemora.

While Lemora is a strong player against the run, Dotson has about 20 pounds on the sophomore, and may be a better matchup against bigger, more physical teams. When Dotson plays nickel, Luani, a junior college transfer who has been a punishing tackler in practice, starts in his place at safety.

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