PULLMAN – The edge position appears to be Washington State’s strongest group. The defensive tackle position might be the Cougars’ most improved group.
“The D-line has been bringing it all camp,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said Saturday after his team’s first preseason scrimmage.
WSU’s edge rushers starred last season and are expected to reprise that role in 2022. But they’ll probably share more of the spotlight this year with the big men in the middle of the Cougars’ well-stocked defensive line.
“I think we’ve been rock solid in the interior,” Dickert added. “We know where we are with the edges, but I think the growth of the interior guys has been awesome to see.”
Spearheaded by two All-Pac-12 talents in Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson, the Cougars’ edges solidified themselves last season as WSU’s defensive headliners. The Cougars’ DTs performed respectably, but not exceptionally, during the 2021 campaign as WSU searched for a consistent push from the inside.
“Last year, it was just like Brennan and RJ making more plays, but this year, we’re going to make a difference with the two guys in the middle,” senior DT Antonio Pule III said.
A handful of veteran tackles opted to accept an extra year of eligibility – provided by the NCAA in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic – and are back from last year’s squad. The Cougars added a potential standout this offseason in Virginia transfer Nusi Malani.
Dickert was unsure about WSU’s prospects at defensive tackle ahead of the 2021 season – the group was relatively untested at the Pac-12 level. The Cougs’ returning DTs were limited to only four games during the pandemic-impacted 2020 season. But the coach has seen significant development within the position as it gains experience.
“At this time last year, we were talking about the big question marks in that group,” he said earlier this month. “Now, they’re established. They have game reps and they’re competing to see who’s going to be out there. And I’m confident about what that room can do. The conversation has completely changed in 365 days.”
WSU had depth and size at DT last year – competent gap-pluggers, mostly – but disruptive playmakers are now emerging.
Malani “gives us something on the inside that we haven’t had in two years,” Dickert said. The 6-foot-4, 282-pound sophomore, who was used on the edge at Virginia, adds pass-rushing skill to a group that didn’t provide much pressure on passing downs last season, combining for 3½ sacks.
Nimble on his feet and boasting an impressive “swim” maneuver, Malani has proven to be a formidable blocking assignment for WSU’s offensive line in team drills this preseason.
“Us as a D-line, we’ve been working hard on our pass rush,” Malani said Saturday. “My abilities can help.”
WSU returns ample experience among seniors Amir Mujahid (6-3, 285), Christian Mejia (6-3, 300) and Pule (6-4, 295), each of whom started six or more games last season. Those three, along with Malani, are locked into WSU’s first-team rotation at tackle. Malani broke out early as “the strongest leader” of the DTs, Dickert said two weeks ago. Mejia, who’s back on the field after missing spring camp with a wrist injury, is a bruiser in the ground game and Pule has been singled out by Dickert for his consistency. Mujahid is always one of the first two DTs on the field.
“I thought he had his best seven days that I’ve seen out of him in three years,” Dickert said last week of Mujahid, a third-year Cougar out of Laney College (Oakland). “He went from being ol’ reliable to a pretty good playmaker in there.”
There appear to be a few capable backup options behind those four.
Sophomore Ty Garay-Harris has gotten some reps with WSU’s first team this preseason. Junior Ahmir Crowder, a six-game starter for the Cougars over the past two seasons, is working exclusively with the reserves. The same goes for Rashad McKenzie, one of the brightest true freshmen of the preseason.
WSU’s DTs have made noticeable impacts throughout the month during 11-on-11 drills against a work-in-progress offensive line, collapsing pockets and closing inside running lanes at a solid rate. The edge rushers, while short-handed, seem to be living up to their billing.
“Our edge players I think are right where we expected them to be,” Dickert said last week. “So, let’s keep growing. Where can that room take it? I think our defense will go as they go.”
Four key contributors, including Stone and Jackson, return from the 2021 squad.
Jackson has been a “human wrecking ball,” throughout fall camp, Dickert noted last week. Stone has been a limited participant and is taking on a player/coach role as he works his way back from an undisclosed injury, but Dickert said recently that the first-team all-conference pick will likely return to the fold “next week or in the next couple of weeks.”
Jackson and Stone have already proven themselves to Cougar coaches. So, much of the first-team work at edge is going to sophomores Quinn Roff and Andrew Edson, both of whom flashed high potential while playing steady minutes off the bench last season. Redshirt freshman Raam Stevenson had also impressed before sustaining an injury, which kept him sidelined all of last week. Lawrence Falatea, another redshirt freshman with a high motor, has been effective in place of Stevenson. Just in case, the Cougars are cross-training Malani at DT and edge rusher.
“To have depth at the edge position is what you need to win in this league,” Dickert said. “You have to be able to affect the quarterback.”
Stone and Jackson combined for nine sacks last year. Edson and Roff recorded 2½ apiece. The Cougars finished with 21 sacks – tied for seventh in the Pac-12.
“The one thing I told (defensive coordinator Brian Ward) that we have to get better at this season is sacks,” Dickert said. “To get into some of these scrimmage situations and to watch these guys do it is exciting. It’s going to take more than just RJ (Stone) and BJ (Jackson) to get a pass rush.”
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