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Secondary no longer a secondary concern for Washington State amid recent struggles

PULLMAN – Utah and UCLA don’t run the Air Raid, they don’t shove Y-cross and mesh down the opponent’s throat and, for the most part, they don’t adhere to any of the same offensive strategies that Mike Leach does, employing a more traditional balance in the run game while leaning on the best qualities of their fleet-footed, dual-threat quarterbacks.

But the Utes and the Bruins also adhere to one of the game’s most common offensive clichés – “take what the defense gives you” – and both recently staged impressive aerial shows against Washington State that would belie their normal identity.

And the Cougars? When it comes to defense, they’re still working on it, especially in the secondary, which took the brunt of the criticism after WSU fecklessly let Utah’s Tyler Huntley and UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson pass for 841 yards, seven touchdowns and complete 68 percent of their throws in games where the Cougars gave up 105 combined points.

Leach didn’t pull punches when he reviewed the unit in the wake of WSU’s 38-13 loss in Salt Lake City.

“We weren’t even close,” Leach said. “I think we’re soft. I think we go out there and do our own thing. I don’t think we listen to the call, necessarily. I think guys just run around and do what they want to do, and I think we have to examine how we’re getting the calls in and I think a certain number, we got them in slow.”

But how did the Cougars, respected and revered in the secondary up until now, get to this point?

As players and coaches iron out the kinks – a process they hope is at least partially complete by the time Arizona State’s offense takes the field in Tempe on Saturday – we identify how they materialized and what’s next for WSU’s beleaguered secondary.

How did it happen?

WSU cornerback Derrick Langford hauls in a pass during a drill in WSU spring practice on Thursday, April 4, 2019, in Pullman, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
WSU cornerback Derrick Langford hauls in a pass during a drill in WSU spring practice on Thursday, April 4, 2019, in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

In August, after a hot and sticky practice at Lewiston’s Sacajawea Junior High, Tracy Claeys was asked about the team’s recent influx of junior college defensive backs.

To help compensate for the losses of cornerbacks Darrien Molton and Sean Harper Jr., and nickel Hunter Dale, the Cougars scoured the junior college ranks for defensive backs who’d help immediately and landed on four players who offered talent and versatility. City College of San Francisco’s Derrick Langford, Iowa Western’s Daniel Isom and Arizona Western’s Bryce Beekman came first, while Shahman Moore of El Camino (California) was added with one day to spare in the early signing period.

Unbeknownst to WSU, the Cougars would lose another starter when all-conference safety Jalen Thompson was penalized for using an illegal substance and docked one year of eligibility, prompting Thompson to enter the NFL’s supplemental draft and kiss his college career goodbye one month before camp started.

“They’re not ready yet. They’re not, but they don’t have to be today,” Claeys, who’s since resigned as WSU’s defensive coordinator, said of the junior college quartet. “We’ve still got 20 practices to go. … There’s no doubt they’re a lot better than they were. It’s just, back there, when you make a mistake, it’s points.”

Perhaps it foreshadowed some of what fans have seen in the last two games.

Buried in Claeys’ interview, too, was an important point that seems to loom especially large now as the Cougars continue to rearrange the pieces of their the defensive backfield, hoping this version of the puzzle looks better than it did two weeks ago on a cold, wet, sloppy night in Utah.

“On the four junior college kids, I hope everybody understands the January I was hired, the previous signing date in December of 2017, I think they signed four DBs and not one of those DBs is still on the roster,” Claeys said. “So you lose the entire class of DBs, we had to bring in some junior college kids.”

Well, close.

Cornerback George Hicks III is still on the roster, as is Damion Lee. But three others are gone. Isaiah Love wasn’t with the team as of March 2018, Josh Talbott was dismissed for a rules violation that same month and Zaire Webb was cut in October 2017 after a shoplifting accusation.

The Cougars could have groomed at least one of those players into a starting-caliber player. Another may have emerged as a key reserve. Instead, they lost all three.

Yet, low as the retention rate was for the 2017 DB class, it was even worse for the group that inked a year later. The Cougars have held on to their most touted recruit, Los Angeles’ Halid Djibril, but D’Angelo McKenzie transferred to Cal Poly, Myles Green-Richards left to play closer to home at Oregon State and Kedron Williams medically retired in the spring after a decent rookie season.

The Cougars have held on to just 37 percent of the defensive backs they signed in 2017 and ’18. A 2016 signee, Grant Porter, should also be in his fourth year with the program, but he didn’t return to the program after being suspended, and ultimately sentenced, for battery charges.

Thompson’s departure was startling and left the program hamstrung at safety, especially because backup Deion Singleton had entered the transfer portal in the spring. Singleton pieced together a solid 2018 season, replacing Skyler Thomas in the Utah game, and may have inherited a starting job when Thompson exited, but by that point he, too, was good as gone.

“When those situations arise, they’re out of your control,” cornerbacks coach Darcel McBath said in August. “So we just control what we can, try to get the best guys in here talent-wise and the guys that fit our program, do what we ask them to do and play the way we play on defense and within this program. I wouldn’t say it was tough. I think we got some great guys and we’re happy with them. And like I said, that’s just adversity for us. We just keep pushing.”

In theory, WSU would’ve been prepared to lose Molton, Dale, Harper and maybe even Thompson, But with their recruiting cycle knocked out of whack by transfers, dismissals and medical retirements, the Cougars had to scramble in their latest recruiting period.

What’s next?

Washington State Cougars cornerback Marcus Strong (4) is called for pass interference as he breaks up a pass in the endzone intended for Houston Cougars wide receiver Bryson Smith (1) during the first half of a college football game on Friday, September 13, 2019, at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars cornerback Marcus Strong (4) is called for pass interference as he breaks up a pass in the endzone intended for Houston Cougars wide receiver Bryson Smith (1) during the first half of a college football game on Friday, September 13, 2019, at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Understandably, coaches prefer not to expend much energy on players who no longer occupy roster spots. Time is precious when the season begins and the deck of cards they have now is the same one they’ll have until December, when they can go back to the drawing board.

So, what type of hand will WSU play Saturday in Tempe?

It’s unclear if the items are related, but three days after Claeys’ resignation was made public, the Cougars reshuffled their defensive depth chart. The previous configuration had Marcus Strong and either Langford or Armani Marsh at the cornerback positions, with Beekman at free safety, Isom at strong safety and Thomas at the hybrid nickel spot.

But that arrangement – and a handful of other things – unearthed a set of problems in the UCLA game, and the Utah game uncovered more. Thomas was constantly beaten in coverage, Isom and Beekman both made costly assignment errors and the cornerbacks often left big pockets of space in front of them, allowing Utah’s shorthanded receiving corps to make one uncontested catch after another.

The Cougars have vowed to improve, and speed up, communication from the sideline – “We’ll get (play calls) in as quick as we can,” McBath said Thursday, “and we’ve got guys in place to get the formation, down and distance, hash, all that good stuff so we can work a little faster” – but personnel changes are also on the way.

Isom, who assured reporters during camp he was more comfortable at cornerback, will return to the position he played previously at Iowa Western and Northern Illinois when the Cougars line up against the Sun Devils.

“It’s all about putting guys in the best position to be successful for this team, as a collective,” McBath said. “… It’s always exciting to move guys around and see what they do best, and it’s good to have a guy who’s played safety and played corner and can go back between both.”

Thomas, a safety last season, will drop back to Isom’s strong safety spot and play alongside Beekman, who’s been productive at times and was arguably WSU’s top defensive player in a Week 3 win against Houston.

“I think moving him back, he’s so confident in making the checks, making the calls and getting guys lined up,” McBath said of Thomas. “I think it fits him a little bit better at this point for us.”

Redshirt freshman Patrick Nunn, one of the emerging young players on the defense, will step into the No. 1 nickel role. At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, he’ll bring more size and strength to the position than Thomas or Dale did.

Coaches are hoping the changes can galvanize the secondary going forward and provide a morale boost for the position group that perhaps has lost the most confidence after two Pac-12 games.

Leach has already noticed positive results since the team returned to practice from the bye week.

“It’s just more decisive,” he said. “There’s more clarity to it, I think.”

The Cougars hope that’s true of everything the secondary does Saturday.

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