PULLMAN – The setting is Washington State offensive line coach Clay McGuire’s house and the view is a gaggle of expectant coaches, milling about with plates.
The smell? Ground beef searing on an open grill.
Life is easy and – for former big-city coach Jeff Phelps – refreshing. Phelps joined the Cougars in January after spending six seasons at Minnesota, a university serving not one but two big cities: Minneapolis and Saint Paul.
“A lot of the coaches were over and had their kids over. That’s what I’m used to,” Phelps said. “That’s what I had before we went to Minnesota. That type of closeness with the staff is outstanding and really one of the reasons I came here.”
Phelps is one of two new primary assistant coaches at WSU heading into the 2017 football season, with inside receivers coach Derek Sage being the other. The spring football practices underway in Pullman are particularly important for them to build trust with the players.
Sage comes to WSU from Toledo. While he has been in Pullman a couple of weeks longer than Phelps, no place really feels like home for the coach until the pads start knocking.
“It feels good to get out there and run around a little bit, see the guys in cleats and shoulder pads, and throw the football,” Sage said. “That’s when you feel home.”
The two coaches differ drastically in style from their predecessors, who were perhaps the two loudest coaches on the sidelines during any given practice. Phelps and Sage both seem to prefer pulling players aside and coaching in hushed tones on the sideline, stressing technique and fundamentals.
“They’ve got to get used to me and my teaching style and how we want to do it,” Sage said. “But as you know, we do whatever coach says. I’m going to coach these guys on every play. I’m going to coach them on left foot, right foot, this and that. Constantly coach their fundamentals.”
Mike Leach said the lack of shouting has not affected the energy of practice.
“I don’t think it has, I really don’t think it has,” Leach said. “I think they do a really good job. Great technicians, great energy out there.”
For Phelps, this spring is also about getting the defensive linemen used to some new techniques that differ from what they were taught under previous coach Joe Salave’a.
For example, the defensive linemen will now always put their inside hand on the ground when getting into their defensive stances. That did not always used to be the case.
“I like to teach them step by step and drill it over and over,” Phelps said. “Playing defensive line is playing defensive line. You’ve got to be big, strong and aggressive. Those things are universal. Where you place your hands, where you place your foot on the first step is where you might differ. They’re getting used to those things.”
Sage and Phelps have more than just the 15 spring practices allotted by the NCAA to impart these lessons before preseason camp begins in August. Since 2014, the NCAA has allowed coaches eight hours per week to interact with players. Two of those hours can be used for football meetings or film review.
But these final eight practices will be critical for establishing a working style with the players and creating a foundation that Phelps and Sage will build on the rest of their time in Pullman.
“It’s great because you want to see what they can do and you want to build on,” Phelps said. “Now we’re getting to see it in action, see how the drills transfer over to what they’re doing out on the practice field.”
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