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Three weeks after making changes, Washington State defense has its foot on the gas pedal again

Washington State safety Skyler Thomas  runs the ball out of bounds after he intercepted a Colorado pass  during the first half Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, at Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – The “Speed D” moniker that was birthed under the Alex Grinch regime at Washington State is still used as a rallying cry for the Cougars’ defense, even as the old defensive coordinator has moved on to Columbus, Ohio, and Norman, Oklahoma.

The Speed D motto is still planted in the social media posts sent out from the school’s Twitter account. It’s still stamped on the T-shirts that are handed out to players and coaches at the start of the season. It’s the phrase that’s bellowed from the middle of most defensive huddles throughout practice: “Speed D on three, Speed D on me. One, two, three, Speed D!”

While the Cougars haven’t forgotten the mantra itself, it seems they’d lost hold of its essence.

It’s an identity crisis Washington State’s defensive players believe is on the mend, and there is finally some evidence to prove that.

In a 41-10 win over Colorado that gave the Cougars their first Pac-12 victory, the defense had its best performance of the season. The tackling was solid, the pass rush was even better and the pass coverage from the defensive secondary was something that finally resembled pass coverage.

Unprompted, both defensive players who visited with reporters after Washington State’s practice Tuesday made mention that the Cougars are performing better because they’re playing faster – putting the “speed” back in Speed D.

“Just our preparation, coming out on the field, the energy, guys jumping around,” said “Rush” linebacker Willie Taylor III. “We’re playing fast, playing faster than we have at any point this season. Just running around, having fun. It wasn’t like that at the beginning, and I think it’s translating over to the field and I think people can see that.”

When WSU’s defense is graded a few months from now, most will divide the season into two halves, judging the Cougars before the resignation of defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys and after. Since Claeys left during the team’s bye week, defensive players and coaches have been in lockstep agreeing the Cougars have played with more energy, more confidence and more clarity in games against Arizona State and Colorado.

The energy is coming from different places. One source has been cornerbacks coach Darcel McBath, who was appointed to co-interim defensive coordinator when Claeys left. Leach did that so the defense could have a more vocal figure in a leadership position. It’s already yielded positive reviews.

“On the sideline, in the meeting rooms, on the field during practice,” Taylor said. “He’s always energetic, just bringing energy we need to practice, and it’s been translating over to the game field.”

The Colorado game, one that netted three interceptions for a defense that had gone 10 quarters without producing a turnover, also allowed a few defensive players more time to settle into new roles.

In some cases, the new roles were familiar ones. But even though players like strong safety Skyler Thomas and cornerback Daniel Isom were returning to their natural positions, WSU’s 38-34 loss to ASU was the first time the Cougars trotted out their reshuffled secondary against an actual opponent.

Some things still looked shaky during the loss in Tempe, but the unit was much more choreographed last weekend against Colorado.

“I think it’s been good for our defense, putting different guys in different places and also putting guys in places where they’re comfortable playing,” Thomas said, “and positions they’ve played their whole lives, so I feel like it’s a good move and I like it.”

It also enables the Cougars to lean on their speed.

“It’s been good for us, because I feel like it gets guys playing faster,” Thomas said. “There’s less thinking involved, so it was a great move and I like the move they made.”