Willie Taylor III finds himself at a new position for Washington State this fall. It’s probably best he doesn’t get too comfortable.
The redshirt junior has spent the offseason learning the ropes of WSU’s edge rusher role, a new pass-rushing position within the 4-2-5 base defense first-year coordinator Jake Dickert will be running on the Palouse this fall.
There’s a lot more to it, but essentially Taylor is being asked to play with a hand in the turf as more of a traditional defensive end – one of two on the Cougars’ new-look defensive line. That role is different than the hybrid ‘rush’ linebacker position he spent his first three years on campus trying to master, totaling 54 tackles, 11 tackles-for-loss and six quarterback sacks. As a senior at Bleckley County High School in Cochran, Georgia, the 6-foot-4, 233 pound junior played free safety, registering 86 tackles, five interceptions and two forced fumbles as the trusted anchor of the Royals’ secondary.
There probably isn’t another player on WSU’s defense that’s seen the field from as many vantage points as Taylor. It’s hard to imagine many would be able to make the transitions without much of a hitch, either.
“Going from ‘Rush’ to D-end, it’s been pretty smooth,” Taylor said. “Not much of a big difference. Coming here playing free safety out of high school, it was pretty smooth jumping to ‘Rush.’ It took me awhile to learn how to pass-rush, everything’s been pretty good.”
Taylor’s football career has been predicated on constant fluctuation, but it’s been successful because the soft-spoken, hard-hitting junior has been willing to accept new challenges without pushing back.
“It’s been quite smooth, I’ve been getting more comfortable every day with my hand in the ground,” he said. “I’ve been playing a lot faster with my hand in the ground, so overall it’s been a smooth transition.”
Smooth is one way to characterize the transition, but teammates seem to think it’s actually going much better than that.
When WSU’s All-Pac-12 right tackle, Abraham Lucas, met with media members a few days into preseason camp, he was asked to highlight a defensive lineman that had stuck out since the team began practicing with pads.
“Willie Taylor III. In my opinion, Willie Taylor III is the best pass rusher on this team,” Lucas said. “He’s quick, he’s tall, he’s agile, he’s long. So going up against him, I really get to lock in my skills and work on my game.”
The Cougars used a traditional defensive end in the 3-4 scheme employed last season, but the room of edge rushers is mostly comprised of players making the transition from another position. That includes Will Rodgers III, who was a defensive tackle last season, along with Ron Stone Jr., who split time at rush linebacker with Taylor in 2019.
Those three haven’t played an official game at edge rusher yet, but if the position’s main priority is to hunt down the QB, WSU’s coaches have seemingly found the three best players for the job.
Rodgers was the team’s leader in sacks, with four last season, while Taylor was third at 2.5 and Stone was tied for fourth with two more.
“The biggest change is at ‘rush,’ we’re standing up the whole time,” Stone. said. “Now we’re in that 4-2-5, hands down in the dirt and it’s just a different way, some of the keys are a little different. Overall, I’m a big fan of the change and I’m looking forward to it this season.”
New COVID-19 testing procedures have meant brutally early wakeup calls for WSU football players.
First-year Cougars coach Nick Rolovich said players have to arrive at the team’s football operations building by 6:15 a.m. daily to go through COVID-19 testing.
“I’m going to start ranting, but the process is smooth,” Rolovich said. “I give tremendous credit to these guys. They test before we get off the field, but there’s also academic-type restraints, so the schedule has probably been not the most positive for players and coaches. But, test’s first thing in the morning, then meetings and weights and school. Then we end up practicing in the afternoon.”
Players are generally accustomed to being up early for football-related activities, so for many, a small change to the morning routine hasn’t been a major inconvenience.
“It’s actually not as bad as it sounds,” offensive lineman Jarrett Kingston said. “There’s a lot of people that think it’s horrible, but it’s really not. It’s just another thing you’ve got to do during the day. If we didn’t have that, we’d either be here earlier for workouts or practice or something.”
Rolovich indicated Wednesday there still hasn’t been much separation between the three players vying for QB1 duties: redshirt sophomore Cammon Cooper, redshirt freshman Gunner Cruz and true freshman Jayden de Laura.
“They all do some good things, you see them getting better at things,” Rolovich said. “Their effort and want to is all there and as a group, I think they took a step last week. There’s still a lot of stuff to continually judge before we get to game day.”
The QBs might get another opportunity to showcase their skills in a game-like situation, but Rolovich indicated the team may not hold another 90-plus play scrimmage like the one that took place on Saturday.
“We’ll do something, I’m sure it won’t look like what we did Saturday,” Rolovich said. “But there’s still a lot to get in as far as what game day will look like, again, all the situations you need to touch on. But yeah, we need get more live work in.”
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