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Washington State mailbag: Addressing the Lamonte McDougle question and what’s next for the Cougars’ maligned defense

PULLMAN – Many of you submitted questions inquiring about potential defensive personnel changes at Washington State in the wake of Tracy Claeys’ resignation. The Cougars, in releasing an updated depth chart Monday, answered those before I could, elevating two backups into starting roles and moving two other starters into positions they’d not been playing previously.

So, rather than take a stab at what the Cougars will do, I used a good chunk of this space to analyze what they’ve done. I hit on Claeys’ departure, address position/personnel changes on defense and discuss the future of the quarterback position at WSU in this week’s mailbag.

Two parts to this question: first, how do you think the defense will do for the rest of the season now that Claeys is out and we have two D-coordinators running the defense? Second: Who replaces Claeys? Do we promote someone within the program who is familiar with Speed D? Or do we scrap the Speed D part and get somebody who is friends with Leach?

– Caleb H.

Regarding your first question, if I knew that, I’d probably be taking home a much larger paycheck than I am currently. I suspect I’ll have a much firmer answer for you by Saturday night, after we watch this play out.

Not only do we need to see how the Cougars operate in the press box without Claeys, but we’ll also be gauging how they execute on the field with all the moving pieces on the depth chart. Dallas Hobbs is taking over as the starting nose tackle, Pat Nunn steps into the No. 1 nickel role, Skyler Thomas moves back to strong safety and Daniel Isom slides over to cornerback.

Many of these moves look and feel intelligent on the surface, but then that prompts the question of, if they were so obvious, why did it take the Cougars so long to get here? I don’t think anyone would dispute Claeys was the most knowledgeable, and experienced, member of the coaching staff. It’s hard to imagine fixing the defense is as easy as rearranging the depth chart, so while I think a few of the moves could pan out in the long-term, don’t be surprised if one or two of them backfire.

Given the circumstances, elevating two assistants to defensive coordinator positions seems to be a logical move, provided there’s some order of hierarchy. That, I suspect, is why Leach moved Roc Bellantoni into the interim DC role, while Darcel McBath is the co-interim DC. While both can help with different aspects of the defense and can offer varying coaching styles, it can create a level of confusion if two people are tasked with making decisions.

Bellantoni will call the plays, and to a larger extent, most of the shots for the defense moving forward, serving in more of the Claeys role. But the Cougars will lean on McBath’s experience within this WSU program and during games, he can provide structure and leadership on the sideline, while Bellantoni handles X’s and O’s from the press box.

When Leach eventually does pull the trigger on a new defensive coordinator, my gut feeling is he’ll look for somoene who offers more of Alex Grinch’s qualities than those of Claeys. When Leach hired Claeys, he touted the former Minnesota coach for his experience and wisdom, but his interactions with players weren’t as frequent as Grinch’s – partially because Grinch also coached a position – and he employed more of a general manager style of leadership, making most of his coaching points in the film/meeting room, rather than doing it on the field whenever an opportunity presented itself.

Of course, you don’t just pluck an Alex Grinch out of a tree, and it’s fair to wonder how desirable the WSU job is in the wake of Claeys’ resignation, which wasn’t ugly per se, but could reasonably make the position less enticing than it was when Grinch left. Leach hadn’t worked with Claeys, Grinch or Mike Breske before bringing those three on board, so hiring a friend, or even an acquaintance, doesn’t seem high on his priority list.

If Bellantoni and McBath can pull the right strings and somehow overhaul the defense in the final seven games, perhaps Leach would consider moving forward with that tandem. Regardless, I’d guess he’ll scour the country for someone who’s willing to adopt many of the “Speed D” concepts and won’t stray too far from what’s worked for the Cougars – both on the field and on the recruiting path.

Could you give me your thoughts on McDougle being benched?

Chance C.

“What happened to Lamonte McDougle?”

“How worried should we be about McDougle missing?”

“Has McDougle been kicked off the team?”

“No McDougle? Insight?”

“Is he still on the team? What’s happening here, Theo, we need answers.”

Well, in that case, I suppose I should take some time to answer a few of your Lamonte McDougle questions this week.

There was plenty of hype and excitement surrounding McDougle when he made the decision to transfer from WVU to WSU two years ago. Now, the pertinent question is: was all the hoopla warranted?

Much of it derived from the nose tackle’s placement on ESPN’s Freshman All-American team in 2017, a list that was compiled by writer David M. Hale. Had McDougle not made the cut, we can probably deduct that his arrival in Pullman wouldn’t have been as highly-anticipated. McDougle had a fine rookie year with the Mountaineers, who put together a nice 7-6 season, finishing fourth in the Big 12 before losing to Utah in their bowl game.

But, I’d pose this question to WSU fans: would you have altered your expectations of McDougle had he not earned ESPN Freshman All-American accolades? Would McDougle’s omittance from the depth chart be as concerning if he’d joined the Cougars after posting solid, but by no means earth-shattering, numbers during his rookie season in Morgantown?

McDougle had 23 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, two sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 13 games during the 2017 season. Dallas Hobbs, who’s expected to make his first start at nose tackle this Saturday against Arizona State, has seven tackles, 3 1/2 tackles-for-loss, one sack and one forced fumble in five games, mostly playing in a backup role to Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei.

“Dallas wasn’t a particularly developed player earlier,” Leach said Tuesday, explaining why Hobbs replaced Aiolupotea-Pei as the No. 1 nose tackle.

And the reasoning for McDougle’s absence from Monday’s two-deep?

“He’s got to be more consistent,” Leach said. “The thing is, he’s got to be more reliable about executing the call, going where he’s supposed to be and attacking half a man.”

I won’t go as far to call ESPN’s 2017 Freshman All-American team bogus. Other players on the list, including Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, Georgia’s Jake Fromm, Stanford’s Walker Little and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, have panned out just fine. But it’s also somewhat curious McDougle wasn’t honored as a Freshman All-American by any of the other publications that put together similar lists, or that he wasn’t nominated as an All-Big-12 defensive lineman, either as a first teamer, second teamer or honorable mention choice.

Yes, McDougle’s still on the roster and yes, I’d still expect him to contribute to this team in some facet this season, despite being demoted to a third-string role ahead of the ASU game. Of the three nose tackles, he has the most raw power and, time after time again, I’ve watched him maul through offensive linemen during the O-line vs. D-line drills the Cougars hold during practice.

But, it’s also important to recognize he’s a redshirt sophomore who’s moved across the country to play football and he’s doing so in a new conference, with new schemes, new coaches and new teammates. Adapting to a new environment takes longer for some than it does others, and it’s clear McDougle’s still navigating that.

Oregon is in the driver’s seat to win the Pac-12 North. However, the North title is hard to predict with UW, Cal, Stanford and WSU all with two Pac-12 losses. What is the likelihood that the WSU defense can recover just enough to allow our high power offense to outscore our remaining opponents while Oregon falls to either Washington or USC thereby putting the Cougs in Santa Clara in December?

Stuart O.

Merely talking about a Pac-12 North championship as it relates to WSU seems like a sin right now, given the recent results, but you’re correct in that the Cougars are still very much in the picture – mathematically speaking, of course.

Both ends of the spectrum are still in play for WSU at the moment. The Cougars could rally in their final seven games and claim their first-ever divisional title, or they could fold and miss the postseason for the first time since 2014. I’d put the second scenario at a higher probablity rate than the first, though I’d guess this team falls somewhere in the middle – reaching the obligatory six-win plateau to reach a bowl game, but failing to run the table for a Pac-12 North crown.

As I mentioned in my game advance before Utah, only one Pac-12 team has dropped its first two conference games and proceeded to win a divisional crown. The Utes did it in 2018. And since the Pac-12 added Utah and Colorado in 2011, only three teams have won a division title with more than two losses. All three of those came from the South: four-loss UCLA in 2011, three-loss UCLA in 2012 and three-loss Utah in 2018.

Mike Leach’s teams have shown the ability to spring big win streaks. The 2016 Cougars, of course, ripped off eight in a row after losing consecutive games to open the season. The next year, WSU opened with six straight wins, and the 2018 team picked up seven in a row.

For WSU to finish atop the North, Oregon would have to lose two games, including the Oct. 26 battle against the Cougars, or drop three while WSU finishes undefeated – something that would not only require the Cougars to beat the Ducks on the road, but also snap their losing streak against the Huskies.

Stranger things have happened, but I don’t envision the Cougars finishing 6-1 amid their current struggles, and glancing at Oregon’s schedule, it’s hard to identify three losses for the Ducks, who’ve given up only 22 points in their last four games and just 13 in Pac-12 wins over Stanford and Cal.

Are you allowed to report on Thursday Night Football? If so, who has been performing better at QB between Gunner Cruz and Cammon Cooper?

– Nathan S.

I haven’t attended any of the Thursday Night Football sessions since the regular season started (those are closed off to the media, same as regular practices), but the last few times I was able to observe both QBs, during the team’s second fall scrimmage and during a TNF-style scrimmage toward the end of preseason camp, Cooper seemed to have a fairly sizeable edge on Cruz.

Most of that, of course, is the additional year Cooper has in the Air Raid system. I’ve mentioned to a few people that Cruz’s level of comfort within the offense reminds me a lot of where Cooper was this time last year. Few quarterbacks nail the concepts in their first season, and Gardner Minshew was able to make a seamless transition because of his experience and Air Raid background.

But it takes time to master. Anthony Gordon looks much smoother in the offense than he did even a year ago, let alone two years ago, when it was still hard to envision him ever running the Air Raid as a starting quarterback.

Cooper may not be prepared to take the reins right now, but the Thursday Night Football scrimmages hold immense value for young players that aren’t repping beyond scout team work during Tuesday and Wednesday practices, and he should get a pretty heavy volume of first team reps during spring camp and in the preseason.

“I think I came a long way, honestly, even since the spring game,” Cooper said toward the end of fall camp. “Just this summer, working with the guys, my confidence is a lot higher and I think it’s kind of showing in my play. That’s just being around everybody and doing extra stuff.”

I asked him if there was anything that’s been more challenging than what he anticipated, to which Cooper responded, “Honestly, just kind of controlling everything, because you really are like the offensive coordinator on the field. So that was a lot, but it’s starting to slow down for me a lot and I think it’s been good.”

From what I’ve observed, Cruz might also need time to refine his mechanics and footwork before he can take a stab at the starting gig. Cooper’s throwing motion is more compact and he gets the ball out much quicker, whereas Cruz, though toting a huge arm, seems to expend more energy in his release.