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Washington State spring camp takeaways: Outlook promising for Cougar defense

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – In 2021, Washington State put together one of its better defensive seasons in recent memory.

The Cougars’ follow-up? It seems to be coming along nicely.

Their defense lost a handful of veterans to graduation and brought in a new coordinator, but WSU’s scheme isn’t changing and the Cougars are well-stocked with experienced returners, plus a few high-potential transfers.

WSU’s defense sparkled during the first spring camp under head coach Jake Dickert, formerly the team’s defensive coordinator for two years. While the unit’s outlook is promising, there are still some concerns to sort out.

Here’s what we know about WSU’s defense heading into the offseason:

Defensive front poised to shine … edge rushers especially

The edges are manned by a pair of all-conference-caliber talents in Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson, and WSU coaches figure four or five other edge rushers could make for capable reinforcements this fall.

At the tackle positions, the Cougars are similarly spoiled with depth – four key returners and a Power Five transfer – and expect a boost in consistency after an up-and-down 2021.

At linebacker, WSU lost its two longest-tenured players in program history to graduation – Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers, both of whom appeared in a school-record 56 career games. But the Cougars reloaded quickly with a star transfer and an experienced backup.

Based on spring-camp observations, it’d be fair to assume that WSU’s front six will be one of the team’s best units this season.

Players and coaches singled out the Cougars’ edge rushers regularly over the past month.

“I’d say our edges position has really been our strength,” Dickert said .

“Those two edges, RJ (Stone) and BJ (Jackson), I’d say they definitely stood out to me,” Nevada transfer senior linebacker Daiyan Henley added when asked about the Cougars’ most impressive groups earlier this month. “They really know what they’re doing.”

Stone landed on the All-Pac-12 first team after breaking out for the Cougars’ defense last year. Jackson earned an all-conference honorable mention for his spirited style of play and leadership qualities.

“I have to pinch myself every day, remind myself to enjoy those guys,” third-year edges coach A.J. Cooper said of the juniors. “I can be pretty intense at times, but to have those types of guys that are good players, that are good leaders, that are good people – I mean, every time I see their parents I give them a big hug and say, ‘Thank you.’ ”

There are few players the staff trusts more than Stone and Jackson. The two proven captains appeared on just a handful of drives combined in WSU’s two spring scrimmages and its Crimson and Gray game. During camp, they have been leaned on in teaching roles.

“What it allows me to do is give them more things to lead the group,” Cooper said. “Instead of me going to coach something or going to give a guy a piece of advice, I really put it on those guys to take ownership of things, and they’ve accepted it in their own ways. RJ’s as outgoing as they come and BJ’s going to do things behind the scenes. They certainly need to be the two pillars of our defense next year, from a leadership standpoint.”

WSU has been evaluating several edge rushers competing for rotational roles. Sophomores Quinn Roff – out with an injury for most of camp – and Andrew Edson saw significant action last year, but youngsters Raam Stevenson, Gabriel Lopez and Lawrence Falatea will vie for time at fall camp. Stevenson, 25 pounds heavier than last season and still explosive off the line, has earned steady praise this spring.

“I feel like our whole edge room is stacked,” Lopez said.

WSU’s rotation at tackle features the same veteran faces as last season – upperclassmen Amir Mujahid, Antonio Pule, Ahmir Crowder and Christian Mejia – and should become more effective by virtue of experience. The Cougars bolstered their interior pass rush with the addition of Nusi Malani, a 6-6, 275-pound Virginia transfer.

WSU’s D-tackles generated consistent push in scrimmages and coaches have been pleased with their impact on passing downs.

“The emphasis is really ‘attacking,’ ” Mujahid said. “We’ve just been attacking, shedding blocks quicker. Also, the conditioning, getting in shape. (DTs coach Pete Kaligis) is really running us.”

Mujahid and Pule were WSU’s first-teamers throughout camp, and Malani and Crowder were always ready to sub in. Mejia started six games last year but was sidelined with an injury for most of spring ball. It’s certainly possible Kaligis rotates all five this season.

The Cougars didn’t delay in finding linebacking successors for Woods and Rogers. Henley signed with WSU in December after taking home All-Mountain West honors at Nevada. Henley, who has appeared in 49 collegiate games, will be a clear-cut NFL prospect, according to Dickert.

Beside him, at middle linebacker, a position battle began to develop at spring camp between junior Travion Brown – a fourth-year Cougar and the favorite to start – and fast-improving sophomore Francisco Mauigoa.

The Cougars like their options. Brown has shown flashes of high potential as a reserve linebacker the past two seasons. Mauigoa was one of WSU’s top recruits a year ago and turned heads at fall camp before starting twice as a true freshman. Brown ran with WSU’s first unit for the first three weeks of camp and Mauigoa replaced him late.

“It isn’t one thing Tre has done or not done, or ‘Cisco,’ ” Dickert said. “We’re going to rotate those guys in and maybe one of them will play multiple positions, as well.”

Senior Ben Wilson and sophomore Kyle Thornton shared snaps at backup outside linebacker throughout the spring, and that competition is sure to continue well into fall camp.

Secondary takes shape, but not settled

The Cougars are settled with their four top cornerbacks and have zeroed in on a leader for the group in Derrick Langford, a 6-3 senior and third-year starter.

Langford will presumably be matching up with the biggest receivers opponents have to offer this season. That had been Jaylen Watson’s responsibility for the past two years, but Watson declared for the NFL draft a year early and is widely projected to be selected this weekend.

WSU returns rotational CBs Chau Smith-Wade, Kaleb Ford-Dement and Chris Jackson. Smith-Wade, a sophomore, was the Cougars’ No. 3 CB last season. He’s probably in the lead to move up a spot on the depth chart, but there’ll be a three-man competition in the fall for the starting job opposite Langford.

WSU’s staff didn’t have many chances to assess the CB group as a whole this spring. Minor injuries sidelined Langford, Smith-Wade and Jackson for stretches.

Senior Spokane native Armani Marsh is a lock at nickel. He’s as dependable as anyone on the team. Armauni Archie missed almost all of last season with a shoulder injury and participated in a limited capacity this spring, but he’ll have the edge for backup duties in the fall.

Senior Nevada transfer Jordan Lee captured the starting role at strong safety upon arrival. He gives WSU’s secondary a hitter with a knack for takeaways – Lee ranked first in the country in fumbles recovered (five) last season and fifth with four fumbles forced, and picked off several passes this spring. Walk-on sophomore Tanner Moku is a DB to keep an eye on going forward. He fared well as Lee’s backup and also worked at nickel at camp.

The competition at free safety will be a storyline to watch during fall camp. Starting duties are up for grabs and four players are apparently in the mix.

Spokane’s Sam Lockett III, a junior college transfer and fifth-year collegian, started in the spring game, but redshirt freshman Adrian Shepherd lined up with the first unit more often over the past month. Freshmen Jaden Hicks and Hunter Escorcia had their moments at camp and Dickert indicated that they will be involved in the battle for reps this fall.

If it ain’t broke

First-year defensive coordinator Brian Ward is making subtle adjustments and additions to the tried-and-true system installed by Dickert in 2020.

“We have a couple of tweaks here and there, and different coverages in different places,” Brown said. “But honestly, we’re still running the same scheme.”

That should come as welcome news to the WSU faithful. The Cougars played a resilient, opportunistic brand of defense in 2021, and their effort on that end helped land Dickert the head coaching gig after Nick Rolovich was fired in October.

WSU’s defense distinguished itself by creating turnovers and making clutch stops. It piled up 27 takeaways – tied for fourth in the FBS – and boasted the nation’s No. 10 red-zone defense, which held nine opponents under 25 points.

“We’re just trying to improve on what we did last year,” Brown said.

Ward and Dickert share strategies regarding defensive strategy. They “come from the same family of coaches,” Ward noted, and use similar terminology and formations.

Their principles trace back to their time as co-workers on coach Craig Bohl’s defensive staff at FCS powerhouse North Dakota State over a decade ago.

Ward also emphasizes takeaways and a “bend-but-don’t-break” mindset – under Ward, Nevada’s 2021 defense finished top 10 nationally in turnovers gained.

“Techniques and a couple of coverages are different, but other than that, the transition has been easy,” Marsh said.

Expect to see familiar defensive designs from the Cougars, such as their speed-oriented, four-edge defensive line on third downs and disguised blitzes.

Ward has been tasked to blend fresh ideas into Dickert’s 4-2-5 system. The new DC’s primary objectives, per Dickert: Enhancing the Cougars’ disruptiveness on passing downs and boosting their sack totals out of a four-down front.