PULLMAN – As each week passes, the rush develops.
Washington State’s defensive resurgence has been fueled in large part by steadily improving play from its edge rushers. Before WSU’s 21-6 victory at Cal last weekend – a win consisting of ample pressure from the defensive front – a couple of Cougar edges had already made headlines.
Last month, Ron Stone Jr. turned heads for his performance at Utah. The lively junior tallied three tackles for loss, forced a fumble with a big hit, and was named one of the Pac-12’s most productive defenders of the day by Pro Football Focus. His surge continued in Berkeley, where he registered a sack.
Andrew Edson had everyone impressed from the jump. The true freshman from Snoqualmie, Washington, quickly ascended WSU’s depth chart in preseason camp. In the Cougs’ first three games, he recorded four tackles for loss, including two sacks, and recovered two fumbles.
“He’s already a star right now,” junior edge Brennan Jackson said.
More edge-rushing strides were made in Berkeley during what Cougars defensive coordinator Jake Dickert called the unit’s “most disruptive” showing of the year.
Jackson had his most impactful game as a Cougar and Willie Taylor III returned to form after an injury sidelined him for most of last season, and kept him limited through spring camp.
Jackson posted a career-best two sacks, one effectively killing a Bears drive early in the second half and “keeping the momentum in our favor,” head coach Nick Rolovich said Wednesday. Jackson, who also batted down a third-down pass, earned the Pac-12’s Defensive Lineman of the Week award.
“He’s high-character, he’s high-energy, he’s high-consistency,” Rolovich said of Jackson, who parallels Stone with his upbeat character and extroverted leadership traits.
Jackson had to play catch-up after missing 11 games with an injury as a redshirt freshman in 2019. He bounced back last year and received an All-Pac-12 honorable mention, and this season has learned from Dickert and edge coach A.J. Cooper to couple his spirit with refined fundamentals.
Jackson said he felt a “bit rusty” in the pandemic season, but he’s beginning to find an “identity on the field” as a more reactive and technical player. He can better shed a blocker with his hands, for example – he did so in one fluid motion on the sack at Cal.
“B.J. is an effort guy. He has a nonstop motor,” said Dickert, who has instructed Jackson to “play the same way, but now let’s use our hands. Let’s know how to rush – power-rush, speed-rush and counters.
“He’s understanding the craft of the position. Sometimes he’s like me. We’re cut-and-dry guys the way we learn. Sometimes you can get robotic in that, and he cut it loose on Saturday. It was great to see him go out and make plays, and do it in the realm of what we’re asking him to do.”
For Taylor, reestablishing a rhythm was a long process.
He appeared on only a few snaps in Week 1 last season before an injury derailed his campaign. Dickert said he’s been “waiting on” Taylor to get back into the swing of the game and break out.
“Ever since we’ve been here, it’s been, ‘Ooh, this one’s different.’ Willie’s different,” Dickert said of the 6-foot-4, 246-pounder, who has beefed up by about 20 pounds over the past two years.
“He’s got the skill set, the length. He really focused on his body and put up some great size and strength. There was some rust, even through fall camp and into the first few games. Then on Saturday, he was disruptive. That’s the Willie Taylor we know and expect.”
According to PFF – per Cougfan.com – Taylor was WSU’s highest-graded pass-rusher against Cal. He logged a sack and induced a few hasty throws from Bears quarterback Chase Garbers.
Dickert sees potential in Taylor’s athletic talents beyond his rushing capabilities. The Cougars’ defense dialed up a handful of unconventional blitz packages against the Bears that had Taylor drop back into shallow coverage.
“We’re seeing him playing his best football recently,” Rolovich said.
On passing downs, WSU’s defensive line often consists of Stone, Jackson, Taylor and Edson. The Cougars’ speed-oriented front was key last week in holding Cal to a 3-of-15 conversion rate on third downs.
WSU (2-3, 1-2 Pac-12) is emphasizing third downs and defensive-line play this week as it prepares for Oregon State’s powerful ground game. The progress of WSU’s D-line will be measured when the conference foes meet at 1 p.m. Saturday at Gesa Field.
The Beavers (4-1, 2-0) lead the Pac-12 in every major rushing category. By virtue of their running prowess on early downs, they don’t face many third-and-longs. WSU’s defensive front might not get “as fancy” as it has been, Dickert acknowledged.
“We’ve gotta get them in passing situations,” he said. “It’s hard to do. … They’re being really efficient on first and second down.”
Rolovich lauds Stone, JacksonIt’s the “unseen accomplishments” that distinguish the Cougars’ edges. Rolovich praised Stone, Jackson and Cooper for “cultivating the young edge group.”
“They take a real pride in helping those young guys get ready to play,” Rolovich said.
The Cougars are well-stocked for the future with promising edge rushers including Edson, Quinn Roff, Moon Ashby, Raam Stevenson and Lawrence Falatea. All were commended for their bright play during fall camp.
“You see a young guy like Edson – who has great (physical) qualities also – but he was brought in, he was absorbed in, and I think that allowed him to thrive even at a quicker level,” Rolovich said.
Cougars react to Stone’s first-down carry
Stone wasn’t only a difference maker on defense.
WSU’s second offensive series fizzled out near its 29-yard line against Cal. Freshman Australian punter Nick Haberer made the first mistake of his young football career, holding the ball too long and booting it into the outstretched arms of Cal’s Nick Alftin.
Stone was on it.
He immediately noticed the mistake, darting 10 yards and scooping up the ball. The 240-pounder rumbled toward the far sideline for an 8-yard gain, then skipped across the field as he returned to his sideline, celebrating his offensive breakout. Nine plays later, the Cougs cashed in with Calvin Jackson Jr.’s sensational touchdown catch.
Dickert was asked jokingly Tuesday if he was concerned about Stone joining the backfield.
“Absolutely not,” he said . “Trust me, he ran 8 yards and he was winded. He made a great play and he’ll tell you that. He might say (he’s a) flex tight end, superback. He’ll make a fancy name for himself, but I think R.J. is right where he needs to be.”
Jackson has heard about the play all week.
“(Stone) talks about that nonstop,” Jackson said. … “It was awesome to see. I probably just would have jumped on it, but … he sees the ball, gets ball, starts running.”
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