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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State mailbag: What to make of Washington State’s new defense, and who’s calling the plays in Pullman?

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 15, 2020

There are 1,500 words of mailbag goodness below , so rather than the normal introduction, let’s get right to the questions.

What different ways will the defense approach games this year so that it improves from last year’s performance?

- Rick F.

This quote from cornerback George Hicks III after Saturday’s practice caught my attention, and somewhat answers your question.

“We’ll all be playing more freely,” Hicks said. “For me, playing more freely. Playing more of what I played from back in my high school days, going back to what I played my freshman year under (former coordinator Alex) Grinch. It’s a lot of similar concepts, but it allows all of us to play freely and play fast. Everyone knows what they’re doing and we’re playing fast.”

Grinch may have “Speed D” trademarked, and I’d hate to start any legal trouble in Norman, Oklahoma, but anything to suggest WSU’s defense in 2020 will compare more with what the Cougars ran in 2017 or ’18, rather than what they ran in 2019, seems like a positive development.

We know coordinator Jake Dickert is running a 4-2-5 defensive scheme that uses four down linemen, instead of three linemen with a hand in the ground and one hybrid “rush” linebacker. Theoretically, that should give the Cougars an edge in pass-rushing situations. They were below average in that department last season, recording 23 sacks compared to 38 the season prior. Dickert’s Wyoming defense registered 31 sacks in the Mountain West last season.

Generating more takeaways is also an area of emphasis for a defense that created just 20 turnovers in 2019. That’s only three fewer than the year prior, but considering the Cougars lost three games that were decided by four points or less, two or three more turnovers could’ve been substantial – perhaps even the difference between 6-7 and 7-6, or even 8-5.

The defense had a clear identity, and solid understanding of the scheme, under Grinch. That carried over the following year, even as Grinch left, because Tracy Claeys seemed committed to retaining the same concepts, plays and terminology his predecessor had introduced. Last year, for whatever reason, the Cougars seemed to get away from that, and never truly recovered when Claeys left the team midseason.

Even this early in the game, it seems clear the Cougars won’t suffer from an identity crisis. There will be gaffes and miscues, as is the case with every team learning a new system, but it’s evident there’s already more cohesiveness than there was at any point this season, and the collective buy-in from players would indicate this is is a ship headed in the right direction.

Who is the primary play caller? Is it (offensive coordinator) Brian Smith or is it a collaboration between the three (quarterbacks coach Craig) Stutzman, Smith and (head coach Nick) Rolovich?

- Jon Y.

It sounds like Smith, who doubles as the team’s running backs coach, will handle the majority of play-calling duties, with Rolovich taking over in certain situations.

The quote below is from Smith’s radio appearance with Matt Chazanow, Jessamyn McIntyre, Alex Brink and Derek Deis a few weeks back.

“Rolo and I work extremely well together,” Smith said. “Him and I go back and forth on calling plays a lot. Traditionally, I’m the lead caller, then he jumps in when he wants and he’s obviously very involved with the quarterbacks and what we do offensively.”

That doesn’t offer too much detail and while I’d still be interested to know what situations call for Rolovich to assume play-calling duties, we do know it’ll be a collaborative effort between two coaches. In other words, a change from the past eight years, when Mike Leach was, for all intents and purposes, the head coach, offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and sole play-caller.

The relationship between Rolovich and Smith is fascinating. Smith worked in the same capacity, as OC and RB coach, for Rolovich at Hawaii, but the California natives were also on the same Hawaii staff from 2008-11 under Greg McMackin. Less than a decade earlier, Smith was Rolovich’s center at UH – both coaches playing on the 2000 Rainbow Warriors team that beat BYU in the Oahu Bowl.

How do the receivers look playing at all the positions? Do you think they will pick this up quickly?

- Jennifer D.

By all accounts, the receivers are undoubtedly a strength of this football team. Even with the graduations, off-season departures, opt-outs, you could make an argument for this being the most talented and deepest, position group on the team. That’s largely because Rolovich’s offense doesn’t rotate through wideouts at the same clip as Leach’s. Whereas Leach used eight receivers most games, Rolovich counts on four wideouts to take the bulk of the reps.

Rolovich has routinely applauded Travell Harris, singling out the junior during his radio show last week and doing so again following Monday’s practice.

“A guy who’s probably stood out the whole time, to be honest – we’ve probably spent enough time talking about him – is Travell Harris,” Rolovich said. “Incredible explosion, good enthusiasm. I think he’s really got the ability to be an inspiring player, not only for fans but also for his teammates. I think he’s really electric on the field, physically, but also with that personality I think he can really be a juice guy.”

From what I’ve gathered, the staff is looking at Harris, Renard Bell and Joey Hobert in the slot, with Jamire Calvin and Calvin Jackson Jr. as the top options on the outside. Rolovich also noted walk-ons Mitchell Quinn and Lucas Bacon have been impressive at the outside receiver positions.

It will be key for WSU’s receivers to develop strong nonverbal communication with the quarterbacks. It’s known that in Rolovich’s offense, receivers have the ability to stem their routes based on the coverage they see, therefore it’s essential the quarterback is on the same page.

“We’re seeing improvement every day and the good thing is, the receivers have been very open to it and very willing to work on something we emphasized that day, whether that’s coming back to the ball or certain stems or certain depths or things like that,” Rolovich said. “So I’m very grateful for their buy-in. Do I think we’re there yet? No. But I think we have the willingness at both positions to get there eventually.”

“How long it’ll take? I know we don’t have a lot of nonsense to deal with as far as, why don’t we do this, why don’t we do that? We did this last year. We’re not having those conversations.”

Defensive line and secondary – how are they looking and who is standing out?

- Doug D.

“How are they looking?” is a question I can’t answer with much authority given the media restrictions at practice.

I’ll relay some of what players and coaches have said about the position groups after five days of preseason camp.

The Cougars lack an all-conference caliber on the defensive line, but there seems to be plenty of competition and depth, certainly at the “edge” position. Rolovich recently named Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone Jr. as standout players on his radio show. Stone was the second defensive player chosen to speak to media members this camp, which doesn’t necessarily indicate he’s the group’s best player, but at the very least someone who’s asserted himself as a leader and someone the coaches feel confident being a spokesperson for the defense.

“I think there is some talent in our edge group,” Rolovich said. “Brennan Jackson had a great offseason and I’m really excited about Ron Stone both as a player and a person … I think he will end up being a real force in the leadership category especially as he gets older.”

The emergence of Jackson and Stone could mean starting spots aren’t necessarily locked in for more experienced “edge” players like Willie Taylor III and Will Rodgers III. Left tackle Abraham Lucas spoke highly of Taylor after a recent practice, calling the Georgia native “in my opinion, the best pass-rusher on the team.”

The Cougars have three starters to replace in the secondary – cornerback Marcus Strong, safety/nickel Skyler Thomas and safety Bryce Beekman – but the situation there sounds better than it would appear on paper. Again, everything I’m relaying is based on what I’ve heard in interviews, and it should be noted players rarely grill their own teammates during media sessions.

From what I can tell, Hicks, Derrick Langford, Jaylen Watson and Chau Smith-Wade are in the mix at cornerback, with Daniel Isom and Tyrese Ross as the top two options at safety. At nickel, Armani Marsh is competing with Halid Djibril.

“I think there will be more consistency, but if we have to do what we have to do, we’ll go on the fly and we have a lot of different guys who can play every position in the secondary,” Hicks said. “So, we’re well-equipped with plenty of guys who can play multiple positions and not just play them, but play them at a high level.”

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