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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State notes: Cougars’ secondary shows flexibility

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 15, 2021

Washington State defensive back Daniel Isom stands on the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Portland State, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Pullman, Wash.  (Associated Press)
Washington State defensive back Daniel Isom stands on the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Portland State, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Pullman, Wash. (Associated Press)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Washington State’s defensive backs are taught to be adaptable.

“We try not to pigeonhole guys,” safeties coach Mark Banker said.

The Cougar secondary’s flexibility is already being tested.

Starting strong safety Daniel Isom spent last week transitioning to a new position.

A couple of injuries forced the savvy grad student’s shift to nickel for Saturday’s game, and Isom had a steady performance in the Cougs’ 44-24 rout of Portland State.

Isom appeared in just 10 plays in Week 1 against Utah State before sustaining an injury that sidelined him for the night, according to Banker.

“He did a great job during the week getting back up to speed and changing positions,” said Banker, who also assists with the nickels. “The week before that, our nickel – Armani Marsh – ended up playing nickel and strong safety within the same series, and we were rotating another strong safety with him.

“Some of these guys are showing great versatility in their knowledge of the scheme.”

Each defensive back has his set position, of course – in which “they need to become an expert at executing,” Banker noted – but WSU’s staff sees value in using a blanket approach to teach its secondary.

For one, it boosts a player’s “draftability.” A defensive back’s ability to play multiple positions might pique a pro scout’s interest.

“It’s just like in life. As a person, the more hats you can wear, the better,” Banker said.

In the case of this WSU team’s present situation, the cross-training could provide relief to a couple of short-handed positions.

It’s uncertain whether the Cougs will rearrange any pieces in their secondary again Saturday, when they host USC. Yet it shouldn’t come as a surprise if a player or two wears a different hat. It’s possible WSU is without a few important players in its defensive backfield.

The Cougars opened their season with two nickels on their roster in Marsh and Armauni Archie. Both were sidelined against Portland State for unspecified reasons, which prompted Isom to assume his third DB position since the beginning of the 2020 season. He played free safety in all four games last year, and earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention nod.

Isom has been commended for his outing last Saturday. It’s worth watching whether he retains the nickel position, even if Marsh returns – Marsh can also play at several spots.

Tyrone Hill Jr., a grad transfer from Buffalo who didn’t play in Week 1, replaced Isom and was in on 62 of Portland State’s 77 snaps, Banker pointed out.

“(He’s) getting back up to speed in a new system, but some of the plays he made were plays a veteran that has played in previous games for the last four years would make,” Banker said of Hill, a 24-game starter with the Bulls from 2018-20. “Real headsy plays.”

Hill didn’t get much time to recharge on the sideline because rotational safety Tanner Moku was out, too.

On paper, WSU’s secondary looked precariously thin ahead of the game, but it fared well, playing penalty-free and largely bottling up Portland State’s offense. Vikings quarterback Davis Alexander completed 15 of 31 passes for under 200 yards against the Cougs’ first-team unit, and he didn’t hurt WSU much through the air on broken plays – he typically thrives after escaping the pocket.

“We got off to a slow start in the beginning of that game against Utah State, whereas in this game it seemed like we were in the flow right away,” Banker said.

“There were some moving parts during the course of the week, a little bit of angst, but I thought, as a group, they came together and played with good chemistry.”

The Cougars left the field feeling less sure about their secondary.

Star cornerback Jaylen Watson fell awkwardly in the third quarter and later had his left arm in a sling. Starting free safety Halid Djibril walked slowly to the sideline during the second period and didn’t return.

Grad student George Hicks III, a converted cornerback, filled in for Djibril. Starting senior corner Derrick Langford Jr. disappeared at some point midway through the game as well. Coach Nick Rolovich admitted that Langford was a bit banged up, but “it’s not a big deal.”

Old Dominion transfer Kaleb Ford-Dement and sophomore Chau Smith-Wade manned the corner positions. The Cougs are hopeful Michigan State transfer Chris Jackson is soon available after missing the first two games.

If WSU has not regained health, perhaps it does some additional tinkering with its secondary personnel to fortify a couple of new weak spots.

“It’s just very fortunate to have guys like that, who have an understanding in total and understand the concepts, that you can kind of plug and play,” Banker said, referring to Isom and Marsh.

“They watch a lot of film. They understand the game and they can put all the pieces together.”

Rookie Edson breaks out

A week into fall camp, Rolovich was already endorsing the “infectious” play style of Andrew Edson, a true freshman edge rusher from Snoqualmie, Washington.

Edson quickly “endeared himself to his teammates” through pure work ethic and commitment to the program, Rolovich said.

But it’s not like the rookie was getting reps with the first-team defense. On account of his youth – and the Cougars’ three solidified upperclassmen at the position – Edson remained under the radar. His breakout would probably come in 2022 at the earliest.

All Edson needed was a couple of games to prove he’s poised to play at this level immediately.

The Mount Si High grad recovered a fumble and, on the ensuing drive, recorded a drive-stalling sack in WSU’s win over Portland State. Edson had also scooped up a loose ball the week before against Utah State.

“I can’t imagine what he’d be like as a senior if he keeps up this effort,” Rolovich said.

On Portland State’s first possession, Vikings running back Malik Walker took a handoff between his center and left guard.

Edson, playing the left edge spot, had been pushed far from the play on his outside rush. He was about 11 yards behind Walker when Djibril ripped the ball away. Edson kicked into gear and rumbled toward the pile, arriving just as the ball was bouncing free from the scrum. He hit the deck and collected the fumble.

The Vikings faced a third down on their next series. Edge Ron Stone Jr. lined up on the inside – the Cougs’ defensive line sometimes uses speed-heavy sets featuring four defensive ends on passing downs – and cleared a lane for Edson, who crossed behind Stone, raced through the gap and tripped Alexander up with his outstretched right arm.

In the second quarter of WSU’s opener vs. Utah State, Cougs linebacker Justus Rogers closed on scrambling Aggies quarterback Andrew Peasley and punched the ball out near the sideline. Edson, who’d been hustling just behind the play, dove on it.

Edson, who’s majoring in electrical engineering, was among the state’s top-rated prep recruits a year ago. His mature frame (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) made his future prospects intriguing. But it’s difficult to quantify a player’s tenacity on paper. That’s what has cemented Edson in WSU’s five-man edge-rushing rotation.

“Just pay attention to when he’s in the game, how he approaches the play and finishes the play,” Rolovich said. “I don’t think it’s a surprise to anybody on the staff or the team that he finds himself around the ball, because he does it every day in practice. He’s a really good one for young football players to watch – just how hard he plays, and how important it is to him. It’s awesome.”

Banker, a former USC assistant, reflects on 1996 visit to Pullman

A veteran coach of 42 years, Banker spent one season at USC. He was in charge of the team’s linebackers and defensive line in 1996.

After Tuesday’s practice, Banker recalled his first-ever trip to Pullman, when the Trojans – boasting future first-rounders in defensive tackle Darrell Russell and linebacker Chris Claiborne – squeezed past WSU and sophomore quarterback Ryan Leaf 29-24.

USC trailed at halftime, and coach John Robinson gave an impassioned speech about establishing the run game, then turned to offensive coordinator Mike Riley in the tunnel before the team came back onto the field and said, “You heard all that stuff I was talking about, right?” Banker remembered.

“(Riley) said, ‘Oh yeah, coach, we’re going to run the ball.’ And (Robinson) says, ‘Just remember this: Make sure we win the game.’

“It ended up with us hanging onto Ryan Leaf like King Kong back there, trying to throw one more final deep ball, and we ended up sacking him and won the game,” Banker said with a laugh.

USC went 6-6 with Banker on its staff, ending its campaign with a 27-20 upset win over No. 10 Notre Dame in Los Angeles. The Cougars dropped their final four games of the season and finished 5-6.

“I enjoyed my time at USC. It’s one of those iconic places in college football and all that,” Banker said.

Banker left USC and coached alongside Riley for 20 years afterward. He was Riley’s defensive coordinator at Oregon State from 2003-14.

There isn’t another WSU staffer with as much experience, and success, against the Trojans.

“I’ve been a part of Oregon State teams that beat (the Trojans) when they were No. 1, No. 3 and No. 5,” Banker said. “We look forward to doing the same thing here when they come into the Palouse on Saturday.”

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