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New Washington State DC Tracy Claeys has ‘nightmares’ about not being able to stop people

Washington State defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys visits with nickel Hunter Dale during a practice in Pullman on March 22, 2017. (Washington State Athletics/Courtesy)

PULLMAN – Tracy Claeys may not even need to dial up a three-and-out to win over his first crop of Washington State football fans.

Perhaps the Cougars’ first-year defensive coordinator accomplished that during his first on-site interview following Tuesday’s practice in Pullman.

He talked first impressions. He talked coaching philosophies. He talked phobias.

WSU fans will get a kick out of the latter.

“I have a fear of not being able to stop anybody,” Claeys said. “I’ve had that since I started being a D-coordinator and some people say you shouldn’t motivate yourself that way, but I do. I watch a lot of film and we visit the staff and that’s my job, is to keep people off the scoreboard and give us an opportunity to win.

“So yeah, I have nightmares about not being able to stop people and that’s kind of what gets me up in the morning and keeps me going.”

Claeys’ tenure at WSU is three practices old, so the DC is still getting to know the players who he hopes will help him achieve that goal this fall. Learning their personalities and dispositions as human beings is just as essential to Claeys during this period as learning their attributes and tendencies as football players.

“They know mine, I’ve got to learn their (personalities),” he said. “Because I think everybody’s different and find what buttons to push for each kid to get the best out of them. So that’s the challenge that I have.”

When Claeys accepted the WSU job in January following a yearlong sabbatical from the game, he said he’d make a point of learning the language and terminology the Cougars were familiar with from former DC Alex Grinch, rather than introducing his own vocabulary.

Defensive players will spend much of spring camp learning new schemes and formations, so Claeys agreed to meet them halfway: They learn his playbook, he learns their lingo. But it’s been a work in progress.

“It’s gone good for the kids and not for me,” Claeys laughed. “I do scripts and things for practice and so I’ve definitely written down the wrong call a few times now. Good thing is (linebackers) coach (Ken) Wilson and guys in the secondary, they get caught on. … But I still think that’s the best thing to do. It’ll be the end of spring before I know all the terminology and I feel comfortable with it.”

Any observer of WSU’s first three practices has probably noticed that Claeys often stands 20-30 yards behind the action when the Cougars are going through 11-on-11 periods and skeleton drills. His coaching style is a stark contrast from that of his predecessor, Grinch, who often blurted out marching orders between plays and was significantly more hands-on.

Claeys might go 10 minutes without offering a peep, but players say his style, albeit different, is just as effective.

“He still gets the message across,” safety Jalen Thompson said. “If he has anything to say, he’ll say it to us and he still gets it across.”

“You’ve gotta be who you are and that’s just not my personality,” Claeys said. “And I can go off like a stick of dynamite every now and then, too, but I don’t like to do that. I like to teach football. I don’t enjoy yelling and stuff like that. I like to teach football.”

Grinch had become one of the nation’s most sought-after assistants by the time he left WSU for Ohio State, but it’s also easy to forget he came to the Cougars without any experience in a defensive coordinator role. Claeys will have his work cut out to match the level of performance Grinch’s defenses attained – especially over the last two seasons – but unlike Grinch, he won’t have to learn the job on the fly.

Claeys is a 34-year veteran of the coaching business who’s now held five defensive coordinator jobs.

“Alex kind of developed on the job and of course Tracy’s a guy that’s got a lot of experience and a lot of dimension,” WSU coach Mike Leach said. “He’s got a bigger body of work.”