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In-depth glance: Projecting and examining the three-deep at every defensive and special teams position for Washington State

UPDATED: Fri., Aug. 23, 2019, 10:06 p.m.

PULLMAN – Elsewhere in the country, the official release depth charts can be one of the most anticipated parts of the lead-up to the college football season.

At Washington State, though, the two-deep is not much more than a restructured, reorganized version of the team roster. Rather than giving away starters and backups at every position, coach Mike Leach uses the “OR” designation between two or three players at spots where there isn’t an obvious No. 1.

Even as Gardner Minshew was gaining steam as a Heisman Trophy candidate, the eventual Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year was still listed as one of three possible starters on the Cougars’ depth chart late in the season: Minshew OR Anthony Gordon OR Trey Tinsley.

So, as the season approaches, we give you our idea of what WSU’s three-deep will like when the Cougars host New Mexico State on Aug. 31, with in-depth looks at every position on defense and special teams.

Defense

Defensive end

1. Nnamdi Oguayo, R.Sr. (6-3, 260)

2. Karson Block, R.Sr. (6-2, 253)

3. Christian Mejia, R.So. (6-3, 270)

Summary: Oguayo’s health continues to be a setback and the senior edge-rusher hit another speed bump this camp. He hasn’t been a full practice participant since last week, though coaches could also be holding Oguayo out purely for precautionary reasons because whatever he’s dealt with doesn’t seem too serious.

Coaches have raved about Block, a former walk-on who gained a scholarship this camp, and it’s easy to make a comparison between the redshirt senior and former Cougars nose tackle Taylor Comfort, who thrived in his lone year as a starter after earning his own scholarship.

“He reminded us of what Comfort was able to do prior to his senior year and that was ago in and add some leadership, play with confidence,” defensive line coach Jeff Phelps. “He’s a physical, tough guy, so at the defensive end position that’s going to be really critical for us going down the stretch.”

Christian Mejia could be the No. 3 at this position, but true freshman Cosmas Kwete has also played well in his rookie camp.

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Washington State Cougars defensive lineman Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei (90) cools off during a practice on Wednesday, August 7, 2019, at Sacajawea Jr. High School in Lewiston, ID. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars defensive lineman Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei (90) cools off during a practice on Wednesday, August 7, 2019, at Sacajawea Jr. High School in Lewiston, ID. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Nose tackle

1. Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei, R.Sr. (6-3, 270)

2. Lamonte McDougle, R.So. (6-0, 291)

3. Jesus Echevarria, R.So. (6-5, 285)

Summary: Three weeks ago, I predicted McDougle would leap Aiolupotea-Pei for the starting job, based on his experience and the need to get adjusted to WSU’s defensive schemes. But it looks like the West Virginia transfer and former ESPN Freshman All-American is going to get beat out by a redshirt senior who’s been more consistent – both in his execution and his work ethic.

“Even during season, you can’t get complacent, because if you have a bad day it’s next man up,” Aiolupotea-Pei said.

Nose tackle could be the deepest position on Tracy Claeys’ defense, because the Cougars would feel comfortable starting Echevarria as well.

Defensive tackle

1. Will Rodgers III, Jr. (6-4, 255)

2. Dallas Hobbs, R.So. (6-6, 285)

3. Nicholas Sheetz, Fr. (6-3, 250)

Summary: Rodgers, a junior from Saginaw, Michigan, will be one of the vocal leaders and the one who gives the D-line its attitude. The loud, passionate, at times brash Rodgers is known to ruffle the offense’s feathers. He was one of the unit’s top producers last season, applying pressure to the tune of 23 tackles, four sacks and 7 1/2 tackles for loss.

The Cougars can use Hobbs at any of the three defensive line positions, but they like him best at D-tackle. He figures to be an important part of the rotation for the first time in his career. Sheetz has been as impressive as any frosh D-lineman and he could hit the four-game mark to get experience and still retain his redshirt.

“Rush” linebacker

1. Willie Taylor III, R.So. (6-4, 230)

2. Ron Stone Jr., R.Fr. (6-3, 228)

3. Fa’avae Fa’avae, R.So. (6-0, 230)

Summary: During a chat with Yogi Roth last week, Taylor’s name was one the Pac-12 Networks analyst kept bringing up as someone who’s one of the best defensive players on campus in Pullman, but still relatively underrated in the larger scope of the Pac-12 Conference. Taylor will start for the Cougars at “Rush” again after making 10 of 13 starts in 2018 and matching Rodgers with four sacks and 7 1/2 TFL.

Stone has developed at a rapid pace. Perhaps one of the reasons coaches moved former “Rush” Dom Silvels back to inside linebacker is because they knew it’d be impossible to keep the redshirt freshman out of the rotation.

Asked in the spring about his progression from his first year to second, Stone said, “I think I got a little bigger, stronger, and it helped me compete and just adapt and play at this next level.”

Moving Silvels to the inside meant pulling someone else outside. That was Fa’avae, who’s best known for a key sack on Oregon’s Justin Herbert in the Cougars’ upset win over the Ducks last season. While Fa’avae might appear to be the odd man out, based on his place in the pecking order, he should see the field in certain packages. Outside linebackers coach Matt Brock has alluded to the Cougars using all three players this fall.

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Washington State Cougars linebacker Dominick Silvels (20) smiles on the sidelines during WSU's Crimson and Grey Scrimmage on Saturday, April 20, 2019, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars linebacker Dominick Silvels (20) smiles on the sidelines during WSU's Crimson and Grey Scrimmage on Saturday, April 20, 2019, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

“Will” linebacker

1. Jahad Woods, R.Jr. (6-1, 228)

2. Dominick Silvels, Jr. (6-3, 230)

3. Rocky Katoanga, Fr. (6-2, 240)

Summary: Now Silvels is Woods’ top backup at the “Will” linebacker spot, a position he became familiar with in his first two seasons on campus. Silvels gives the unit more length than Woods. The year he spent in more of a pass-rushing role could give the Cougars more flexibility in different schemes and packages.

“I thought it was an easy position for him because he’s really smart on the field,” Woods said, “and he’s also really athletic. So I think it was a good move for him to come back to inside linebacker.”

Coaches have urged Woods, pound-for-pound the best player on this defense, to become more of a vocal leader. He’ll have to serve as the QB of the defense, making calls to the front line and back end, now that Peyton Pelluer has graduated.

Even though we’ve listed Katoanga at the third spot here, rookie Travion Brown is the group’s fifth linebacker. He’d be the one filling in at either inside position if one or two of the top four went down with an injury.

“Mike” linebacker

1. Justus Rogers, R.Jr. (6-2, 230)

2. Dillon Sherman, R.Jr. (6-2, 230)

3. Travion Brown, Fr. (6-3, 220)

Summary: If you had to select a Defensive MVP of this fall camp, it’d be hard not to go with Rogers, who was quiet last fall while Pelluer, Woods and Sherman collected most of the stats and accolades. But nobody on WSU’s defense has collected more interceptions during preseason camp than Rogers. He returned a pick for a touchdown on Gage Gubrud in the second scrimmage and broke Gordon’s two-week run without an interception by bringing down one of his throws earlier this week.

Asked what’s been the key to more takeaways, Rogers agreed he’s probably been in “the right place at the right time.” But the fourth-year junior also credits it to “just being here to get more comfortable, not have to think as much and be able to play fast.”

Sherman, who has 25 games under his belt, adds veteran experience to the position, though he hasn’t stayed fully healthy this camp, which makes you wonder if Brown will have to play earlier than expected.

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Washington State Cougars safety Skyler Thomas (25) pauses between plays during a practice on Wednesday, August 7, 2019, at Sacajawea Jr. High School in Lewiston, ID. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars safety Skyler Thomas (25) pauses between plays during a practice on Wednesday, August 7, 2019, at Sacajawea Jr. High School in Lewiston, ID. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Nickel

1. Skyler Thomas, R.Jr. (5-9, 185)

2. Patrick Nunn, R.Fr. (6-4, 210)

3. Trey Davis, Fr. (6-1, 192)

Summary: Thomas, the team’s No. 1 choice at free safety last season, is the replacement for multiyear starter Hunter Dale. The Cougars moved the redshirt junior to nickel before Jalen Thompson’s surprise departure and kept him there after the all-conference safety went into the supplemental draft, maintaining the position is better suited to Thomas’ skill set.

But he hasn’t been a full practice participant this camp, giving Nunn a ton of reps with the No. 1 defense. Big and rangy, the redshirt freshman from the Bay Area has 6 inches and 25 pounds on Thomas, but he’s still young and it shows up on the field. The Cougars like to do lots of rotating at most every position to defense, but it’s fair to wonder if Thomas will be getting 80-90 percent of the nickel reps if they find themselves in close games.

Cornerback

1. Armani Marsh, R.So. (5-8, 183)

2. Derrick Langford, So. (6-3, 195)

3. Shahman Moore, R.Jr. (6-1, 175)

Summary: Perhaps the only position on the entire field in which the Cougars still don’t have a firm starter. After the second scrimmage, Claeys seemed frustrated with the amount of experimentation that was happening this late in the game. There’s no doubt the cornerback spot opposite Marcus Strong was one of the positions he was referencing.

I’m giving Marsh the nod because the Spokane native played exclusively with the No. 1 defense last week, in the second scrimmage and also during the final two practices that have been open to the media. Langford only observed Wednesday’s drills in shorts and a T-shirt, so I’d anticipate Marsh gets more work with the ones this week, putting him in a better position to start the opener against the Aggies.

Moore, one of four junior college transfers the Cougars brought in this offseason to fill out their DB depth chart, has been a pleasant surprise during training camp.

I’m getting the sense that WSU has three players who could start – and play well – but not one it feels 100 percent confident with. Don’t be surprised if all three are repped the first few weeks, until Marsh, Langford or Moore separates themselves from the other two.

Free safety

1. Bryce Beekman, R.Jr. (6-2, 190)

2. Chad Davis Jr., R.So. (6-2, 201)

3. Tyrese Ross, R.Fr. (6-2, 190)

Summary: While a few of the JC transfers are still trying to lock down spots, another one did so almost immediately. Within two weeks of spring camp starting, Beekman was getting a steady diet of first-team reps and the fourth-rated junior college safety prospect in the country hasn’t let off the gas since.

Beekman’s length and athleticism give the Cougars a combo they didn’t have with Thompson – no, we aren’t comparing the two. Beekman was a turnover machine in his two seasons at Arizona Western College, picking off 10 passes and forcing a pair of fumbles.

Though we list Davis as Beekman’s backup, redshirt freshman Tyrese Ross is the team’s third-best safety and he’d probably be the next man up at either position.

Strong safety

1. Daniel Isom, R.Jr. (6-0, 192)

2. Tyrese Ross, R.Fr. (6-2, 190)

3. Damion Lee, R.So. (6-0, 200)

Summary: There won’t be a bigger dropoff from the 2018 starter to the 2019 starter at any position on the field more than strong safety. That’s bound to happen anyway when you’re replacing an All-American caliber player – like the Cougars are doing at left tackle – but the talent/experience gap between Thompson and Isom/Ross is obviously much greater than the one between Dillard and Ryan.

Isom, who the Cougars brought in to play cornerback, is more seasoned than Ross after spending one year at FBS Northern Illinois and another at Iowa Western, consistently one of the program’s top junior college programs. Ross seemed poised to take over at strong safety until coaches called an audible and moved Isom over, realizing the Cougars had a greater need there than either of the CB positions.

Ross may still have the higher ceiling as just a second-year rookie, but Isom, more fundamentally sound and less mistake-prone, feels like a safer bet, though both should see plenty of time on the field.

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WSU's Easop Winston Jr. (8) catches the ball against Marcus Strong (4) during practice on Friday, August 3, 2018, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
WSU's Easop Winston Jr. (8) catches the ball against Marcus Strong (4) during practice on Friday, August 3, 2018, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Cornerback

1. Marcus Strong, Sr. (5-10, 185)

2. George Hicks III, Jr. (6-0, 190)

3. Halid Djibril, R.Fr. (6-1, 190)

Summary: Now that Thompson’s gone, Strong becomes the grizzled vet of the Cougars’ secondary and he’s coming off the best game of his career. You all remember Strong’s should-have-been-pick-six from the Alamo Bowl, but what may have been forgotten was the California native also made seven tackles with one sack against the Iowa State Cyclones.

We can clump Hicks into the same box as Marsh, Langford and Moore as a fringe starter who’s done more than a few good things in practice, but also made his fair share of errors, thus making defensive coaches leery. Still, the true junior should be a part of the rotation and has more experience in the scheme than the trio of players mentioned in the last sentence. He spent portions of camp playing on that side of the field as well.

Specialists

Kicker

1. Blake Mazza, R.So. (5-9, 175)

2. Jack Crane, R.Jr. (6-2, 196)

Summary: It’ll be the Mazza show again after the redshirt sophomore transfer booted 10 field goals in 2018, including the one that beat Stanford in Palo Alto. Mazza had made six consecutive field goals in the scrimmages until missing on a 42-yarder.

Crane will reassume his role on kickoffs.

Punter

1. Oscar Draguicevich III, R.Jr. (6-0, 185)

2. Johan Zetterberg, R.So. (6-2, 215)

Summary: Draguicevich is the Cougars’ only preseason All-Pac-12 first-team selection. It’s a honor that’s well-deserved after the Texan ranked second in the conference with a punting average of 45.7 ypp.

Long snapper

1. Simon Samarzich, Fr. (6-0, 210)

2. Tyler Williams, R.Jr. (6-3, 220)

Summary: It’s been back and forth between Samarzich, the true freshman who signed a letter of intent to play for the Cougars in December, and came to the Palouse for a full scholarship – rare for someone at his position, at least at WSU. I suspect Samarzich is snapping for the Cougars in their opener, but the starting spot is still in limbo.

Kick returner

1. Travell Harris, R.So. (5-9, 180)

2. Max Borghi, So. (5-10, 197)

Summary: Harris has three more seasons to return one more kickoff for a touchdown and match the program record of two, set by six players.

Punt returner

1. Travell Harris, R.So. (5-9, 180)

2. Calvin Jackson Jr., R.Sr. (5-10, 185)

Summary: It looks like Harris will handle kick and punt returns this season, but perhaps Jamire Calvin will take the punt return role off his back if he returns to full health.

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