Washington State’s defenders probably feel like they shouldn’t be judged on last season’s limited four-game sample.
The Cougar football team ranked 111th nationally in total defense, surrendering 462 yards per game. While WSU fared passably in stopping the run, opponents gouged its coverage for 307 passing yards per outing – only three other FBS teams permitted more yards through the air each contest in the pandemic-disrupted fall.
Perhaps it’s unfair for this year’s predictions to be based on last year’s shortcomings.
The Cougars, playing under a first-year coaching staff, were often plagued by injuries and COVID-19 in 2020. Their defensive backfield might be littered with youth one week, for instance, or their D-line lacking the availability required to employ an effective rotation.
WSU’s defensive roster has since filled out and shaped up, and that side of the ball has won the day at practices with some consistency ahead of the team’s opener Saturday at home against Utah State.
It appears possible that WSU will be carried by a veteran-laden defense in 2021. Wouldn’t that be something out of the ordinary?
The Cougs seem determined to prove that 2020’s numbers were fluky, or more broadly, that they won’t be defined by similar inconsistencies on defense.
“I think there’s a little chip on their shoulder on the defensive side of the ball, which I’m OK with,” second-year coach Nick Rolovich said earlier this week after a practice.
No matter how cliche it may sound, defensive turnarounds are typically highlighted by improvements to traits like depth and experience. For the Cougs, those areas have seen key developments.
“Depth and knowledge at multiple positions,” Rolovich said when asked of the most significant strides WSU has made defensively.
“Our depth is a lot better than last season, especially with how much it varied game to game.”
The enhanced stock of players ready for the Pac-12 is most noticeable in the backfield.
WSU returns senior starters at cornerback in pro-caliber talent Jaylen Watson and Derrick Langford Jr. Reserve Chau Smith-Wade, a sophomore, has had a bright camp.
The Cougars beefed up their rotation with a couple of proven pieces in senior Old Dominion transfer Kaleb Ford-Dement – an All-Conference USA ballhawk in 2019 – and former Michigan State CB Chris Jackson, a two-game starter with the Spartans last year.
“Corners, we got some guys we feel like can play,” said Rolovich, who acknowledged that Ford-Dement will likely be the most impactful defensive transfer.
“Kaleb’s done a nice job. He has a personality that fit in pretty early.”
Langford, a third-year Cougar entering his first season as a full-time starter, has noticed at practice that the drop-off is limited when backup corners rotate in.
“I feel like the whole room is full of dogs,” he said. “You can call anybody’s name and they’ll come ready to play.”
Safety was a problem position last year, and its corps lost high-ceiling contributors Tyrese Ross and Ayden Hector to the transfer portal in the offseason.
All-Pac-12 honorable mention grad student Daniel Isom has mostly performed steadily at strong safety, but there’s an opening beside him.
George Hicks III, a graduate who played corner for the past four years, and junior Halid Djibril – a special-teamer in 2020 – are apparently still duking it out for reps at free safety. Armani Marsh, a solid senior tackler at nickel, is locked into his role there. His backup, Armauni Archie, was a camp notable.
Senior Buffalo transfer Tyrone Hill Jr. missed spring ball, then spent much of the fall rehabbing through an unspecified injury. The general feeling is that he might vie for starts once settled in.
“(Hill) got banged up early but he’s making his way back,” Rolovich said. “We’ll get to see him before game day. … They (the new DBs) have all helped, they’ve all contributed.”
There are options, at the least, yet it’s a fairly untested group at this level in a conference that fields such varied offenses by the week.
“I let the young guys know: It’s not an easy defense to pick up. It’s big on everyone doing their job for everything to happen right,” Watson said. “It’s weird because of all the different personnels we play (against).”
Creating more turnovers has been emphasized on defense. The Cougars logged two picks last year.
Partly by virtue of the high-tempo M.O. of several upcoming Pac-12 foes, defensive coordinator Jake Dickert stresses splitting reps among linebackers in his 4-2-5 defense.
Rolovich considers that bunch among WSU’s most mature.
“We’ve seen some good development at the linebacker position toward the end of camp,” Rolovich said. “We’ve increased our depth or accountability, dependability at those positions.”
Mainstay Jahad Woods has a staggering 40 starts across four seasons under his belt. The weak side linebacker is accompanied by Justus Rogers, a sixth-year Coug who owns about 30 starts in the middle.
Energetic camp standout Travion Brown will get time at Mike. Senior transfer Ben Wilson was a TCU reserve from 2018-20, and sophomore Kyle Thornton, another fall camp gem, could round out the main rotation.
Coaches and players think true freshman Francisco Mauigoa has a shot at reps, too.
“(We were) so used to having guys out, being short people, and now we’ve got so many people,” said Woods, one of the most prolific tacklers in WSU history.
The Cougs’ interior defensive line wasn’t as productive as Rolovich would have liked last year – some of that can be attributed to playing short-handed.
That’s another weakness he’s seen progress.
A reasonable push up front is expected from the 6-foot-6, 285-pound Dallas Hobbs, a senior. Junior Ahmir Crowder and senior Amir Mujahid shared the load last year, and senior Antonio Pule has worked his way into a role.
It was difficult to get a complete gauge on the position with limited full-speed drills at camp, but WSU’s quarterbacks had to deal with healthy pressure at times.
Dickert hopes to have six tackles ready to play by Saturday.
“We want to keep those guys fresh,” he said. “Until someone really stands out, we’ll try to do as much as we can packagewise, maybe get four defensive ends in at a time to pass rush. You’re gonna see a lot of people on our D-line playing, and I think that’s a good thing.
“Especially getting some high-tempo teams this season (Utah State included), we’re gonna rotate a lot of guys in.”
The Cougs are spoiled at edge-rusher. Junior Brennan Jackson is poised for a big year after a breakout 2020. Fellow junior Ron Stone Jr. tied Jackson for the team lead in sacks last season with 1.5. Hulking senior Willie Taylor III appeared in only one game last season after starting 21 between 2018 and ’19. He’d been limited throughout camp.
WSU has grown confident in backups like Justin Lohrenz, Moon Ashby and rookie Andrew Edson.
“We’ve got everyone coming back and got some new guys,” Stone said. “Rotation, tempo or not, is something you want to keep going. … If we have six guys, seven guys that can all play full speed for a couple of plays a series, we’re going to keep rotating them. That’s ultimately going to make us better and play faster.”
The Cougars return the bulk of their defensive core, and that’s a luxury to have with a coaching staff entering Year 2 after a season in which the installation of new schemes was disrupted at every turn.
Players have indicated it was a major challenge to grasp their new defensive philosophies without a traditional preseason – and with their roster often limited, too.
Rolovich feels far more encouraged by his defense now, not just because of its depth, but equally because of its intelligence.
“The increase of football 101 within the defense … I think we’ve got a much smarter defensive football team than we had last year,” Rolovich said. “Obviously they feel comfortable with the defense a little more, but there’s an investment in being sound, doing their job, understanding what their job is. I’m not quite sure that was fully accepted last year. I think we were trying to get through the games.”
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