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Coach Jeff Phelps gives Washington State a true technician on the defensive line

WSU defensive line coach Jeff Phelps was part of Minnesota’s 17-12 Holiday Bowl win against the Cougars last December. Now he’s an aide in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

LEWISTON – Jeff Phelps has plenty of indelible memories from the last bowl game he coached in. The first-year Washington State aide watched his legion of defensive line maulers drop the quarterback three times for 28 yards. They held a potent run game to 39 yards on 23 carries. The opponent crossed the goal line just once.

It wouldn’t be so wise of Phelps to crow about those feats around his new colleagues, though.

The quarterback that Phelps’ D-line decimated? That would be Luke Falk. The tailbacks Minnesota stymied? Those would be Jamal Morrow, James Williams and Gerard Wicks. And the prolific offense the Golden Gophers held in check for the better part of four quarters? Of course, it was that of Mike Leach’s Cougars.

Phelps has taken a few barbs from his fellow assistants about the 2016 Holiday Bowl – a 17-12 win for Minnesota. He’s just careful not to return them.

“I hear about it all the time,” Phelps said earlier in the week. “I catch it all the time, but the good thing is, now that is truly last year, so we don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

Leach did comb through all 13 of Minnesota’s games – the Holiday Bowl was in there, too – before offering Phelps a position to coach the defensive line in Pullman. What popped out to WSU’s head coach during that deep study?

“Very stable, very steady, very smart guy,” Leach said. “Really smart. And then … he’s a real good X and O’er. And I think just his knowledge of the game has rubbed off on those guys and they’ve done some real good things technically. I think we’ve improved technically for sure.”

Leach was also impressed by Phelps’ ability to elevate the players that didn’t necessarily jump off the page with natural talent. He made a good D-line a great one.

“The position that jumped out virtually every game was their D-line,” Leach said. “And I thought their D-line did a fantastic job all season long, and I don’t think they had overwhelming defensive line talent, but then I thought they were the strongest position of the team.”

Phelps replaces Joe Salave’a, the burly, beloved ex-WSU assistant who fortified the Cougars’ recruiting presence in American Samoa before taking the D-line job at Oregon.

For all the good that Salave’a did in his five years at WSU, the Cougars ranked just 10th in the Pac-12 last year in total sacks (20). So Phelps aims to install a strategy heavily based around the pass rush.

“We changed up a little bit of things, try to get a little more penetration,” he said. “We’ve obviously got to get more pass-rush, get more penetration and pressure on the quarterback, so that’s kind of been a key thing that we’ve talked about through the spring, through the summer, leading up into the fall.”

Defensive end Hercules Mata’afa says Phelps has brought a “Midwest style” to Pullman. No wonder, that’s where he traces his football roots. Before Minnesota, Phelps spent time at Northern Illinois, Ball State (Muncie, Indiana) and DePauw University (Greencastle, Indiana).

“I’m working on rips more,” Mata’afa said. “I’m working on different steps as well.”

WSU outside linebackers coach Roy Manning spoke of Phelps as someone who can diagnose problems right as he’s seeing them. That’s a rare trait, by the way.

“He’s the man,” Manning said. “Very, very cerebral guy, man. Very cerebral, very much a technician. It’s the saying, he can see the golf swing. He sees it as it’s happening. He sees what the problem is right as it’s happening and that’s something not every coach is able to do.”