PULLMAN – It’s an eclectic group comprised of sixth-year seniors, junior college transfers, Power Five bouncebacks and tenacious freshmen.
Two of them come from California, two more are native Georgians, one is from Chicago (by way of Denver) and the other calls Seattle home. The smallest is listed at 5-foot-11, 171 pounds, while the biggest stands 6-3 and 198 pounds with a wingspan rivaling any in the Pac-12 Conference.
The diversity of Washington State’s cornerbacks room could make it one of the most compelling position groups to follow in 2021, but the experience, top-end talent and overall depth could also make it one of the most effective the Cougars have had in some time.
In the past, WSU’s football team has managed to find success, grab wins against the top teams in the Pac-12 and make bowl appearances a yearly ritual despite occasionally inconsistent play at the cornerback position. This year, the Cougars’ success may not only hinge on the efforts of the corners, but could be a direct result of it.
Although it’s hard to make too much out of intersquad scrimmages in April, the first real showcase for WSU’s cornerbacks in 2021 went about as well as it could have. During Saturday’s Crimson and Gray spring game, cornerback Jaylen Watson was responsible for one of the three interceptions and nickel Armauni Archie had another, pulling down a ball that was initially deflected by another corner, Derrick Langford. A third corner, Chau Smith-Wade, finished with five tackles – second only to Archie’s six.
“I think every day that group keeps building confidence,” WSU defensive coordinator Jake Dickert said after the scrimmage. “It’s one of the most competitive groups that we have on the defense in terms of guys pushing each other daily.
“… It’s a fun group and we’re excited to see that progression, because you know in this league you’ve got to be great on the outside, and those guys have continued to be challenged, and we’re going to try and put them in positions to make them uncomfortable and see who wins those jobs.”
Of all the things that distinguish the position group, the presence of an elite, NFL-caliber corner may be the first thing that jumps off the page. It’s something the Cougars haven’t had in a while. If WSU’s defensive secondary is to make a decent jump in 2021, it’s a safe assumption that Watson, a returning All-Pac-12 honorable mention choice, will be a vital part of the formula.
Not just in the way fans imagine, either.
“The thing about (Watson) too is, great players bring others with them,” WSU strength and conditioning coach Dwain Bradshaw said in a recent Zoom interview. “It’s not about just yourself, they bring others with them and him, he’s a guy that when we’d have extra workouts and all that stuff, open hours, he’d dang near find ways to get the whole defense in. So, he not only grew with his body and his speed, but his leadership ability. I think that’s one thing that really grew.”
Not since 2003 has WSU placed a cornerback on the All-Pac-12/10 first or second team, but Watson has the opportunity to make that leap this fall, especially with four of the first-, second-team picks from 2020 now headed to the NFL. During Saturday’s Crimson and Gray broadcast, Pac-12 Networks analyst and former UW safety Nigel Burton compared Watson to former All-Pro NFL corner Aqib Talib – both players possessing impressive range, athleticism and instincts.
“He’s really conscious of his body, which is why he makes sure his abs are right,” cornerbacks coach John Richardson said. “But no, he’s continuously improving as well. Maturity and growth is something we’re focusing on with him, being more detailed. Because he is such a good athlete.”
Watson said the corners have made significant strides in a short period of time after COVID-19 interrupted their development last season.
“Just getting comfortable with trusting the guy next to us, just getting comfortable with technique, getting comfortable with the playbook,” he said. “So, when we get comfortable with all three, we can just play faster.”
If the Cougars want size on both boundaries to match up against bigger wideouts, they’ll have that option in 2021. Along with Watson, a former USC signee from Augusta, Georgia, there’s another long, tall body on the roster in Langford, a City College of San Francisco transfer. The 6-3 senior has played in 14 games with two starts the past two seasons and may be the best individual example of the group’s universal growth from 2020.
Watson recently tabbed Langford as the most-improved corner on the team. The Richmond, California, native was also singled out by his defensive coordinator, who said, “D-Lang has been way more consistent this spring camp than he was in the fall and it’s great to see.”
Nobody in the group has made more Pac-12 starts than George Hicks III, who joined the program in 2017 and took advantage of COVID-19 rules to return for his sixth season with the program. But those credentials on their own may not be enough to win Hicks a starting job in a position group that includes Watson, Langford and Chau Smith-Wade, a product of Chicago’s Simeon Academy who carved out a place on the depth chart as a freshman and should benefit from his first offseason inside a college weight room.
Finding two starters from those four was enough of a challenge last season for Dickert and Richardson, but the group padded its depth again in the offseason with the addition of Chris Jackson, a Marietta, Georgia, native who’s still learning the checks and playcalls of WSU’s defensive scheme but is no stranger to the Power Five experience after starting two games last year at Michigan State.
“It’s good to see flashes from all different guys,” Dickert said. “Chris will flash, George will flash, Jaylen. D-Lang has been way more consistent this spring camp than he was in the fall and it’s great to see. Competition brings out the best in everybody and we’re just excited about that group.”
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