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Washington State defense paced by deep and talented group of edge-rushers

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Washington State’s top two edge rushers became stars last year. Two others broke out as impactful reserves in 2021.

All of them are back for a position group that has established itself as the leading unit for WSU’s defense – and perhaps the team’s strongest overall unit.

“Our edge players are right where we expected them to be, so let’s continue to keep growing,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said earlier this month during fall camp. “Where can that room take it? I think our defense will go as they go.”

Starters Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson are WSU captains and All-Pac-12 talents. Sophomores Andrew Edson and Quinn Roff return after showing high potential off the bench last season.

But WSU’s pass-rushing rotation probably won’t be limited to those four players. The Cougars are deeper on the edges this year.

Redshirt freshmen Lawrence Falatea and Raam Stevenson turned in impressive efforts this preseason and worked themselves into contention for playing roles in 2022.

“I’ve seen Raam and Lawrence really grow this off-season,” defensive run game coordinator/edges coach A.J. Cooper said . “Compared to this time last year, they’re both 20-plus pounds heavier. … They have confidence, they believe in what they’re doing. Their bodies have gotten bigger and stronger and they trust that, so it’s fun to watch them grow and develop because it only pushes those older guys, too.”

Falatea and Stevenson, both light on their feet at 230 pounds, augment the speed element in WSU’s pass rush.

Stevenson, who appeared in one game last year, received steady work with WSU’s first team and drew consistent praise early in camp for his acceleration off the line of scrimmage and ability to maneuver around blockers.

“Raam’s different,” Cooper said. “He did something the other day in pass rush where the whole group was watching it in film, and we were like, ‘Whoa.’

“He’s got a different ability. For him, it’s just growing the confidence, understanding when he can use those abilities. He’s got such a high ceiling.

“He adds a twitch, a burst, an ability to pass rush, an ability to play in space that some of the other guys just haven’t been blessed with by God.”

Stevenson has returned to full participation after missing about two weeks with an injury sustained on the fourth day of the preseason.

As fall camp progressed, it became impossible to overlook Falatea, who seemed to constantly pester WSU’s offense during full-team periods throughout the second half of preseason practices. He had six sacks across three days of 11-on-11 drills last week.

“He’s definitely put himself in the mix,” Cooper said of Falatea, who appeared in one game last season after a standout performance at fall camp. “Outside of (Jackson), he probably had the best camp out of the group. He kept getting better and better and better.

“Each day, it was something a little different. He would take coaching and work on it, improve on it. … He’s got a hunger and a fire, because of his confidence, that I didn’t see last year. We’re gonna let the big fella get out there and go eat a little bit.”

Cooper plans to employ “six or seven” edge rushers throughout the season, no matter “what the scenario is.”

“We want to have great, fast starts, but I want a group that’s deep enough where we can keep rotating,” he said. “That’s kinda what happened at the end of the year – we kinda tailed off a little bit.”

Of course, the Cougars will lean on their veterans in Jackson and Stone, who spearheaded WSU’s defensive resurgence last year and emerged as the Pac-12’s most disruptive edge-rushing tandem, combining for 109 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks and 76 QB pressures.

Stone made plays all over the field and earned All-Pac-12 first-team honors in 2021. He drew an all-conference, first-team preseason nod last month and also landed on the watch list for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy presented annually to college football’s defensive player of the year.

Stone participated in a limited capacity throughout the preseason and was held out of full-team drills for unspecified reasons. Dickert said recently that he is not concerned about Stone’s status for the opener. The fifth-year junior was still an influential presence at fall camp.

“(Stone) is the vocal leader, the alpha when it comes to saying the things that need to be said when they need to be said,” Cooper said.

“(Jackson) is the leader on the field, as far as doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done. That’s not a knock on either in the other category, but they just balance each other so well.”

Jackson was arguably the Cougars’ single brightest player of the preseason. The 263-pounder bulldozed his way past offensive linemen all camp. Dickert called him “unblockable” and “a human wrecking ball” on more than one occasion.

“Bull in a china shop,” Cooper added. “This is his first full year of completely training his body and his confidence. If you met Brennan three years ago, he’s a completely different person – just with how confident he is, understanding what he needs to do, understanding what his capabilities are.”

Jackson is playing at full speed after struggling with nagging injuries during the past few preseasons. Now firmly cemented in his leadership role, the fifth-year junior is playing with conviction, too.

“He’s not coming up and asking questions,” Cooper said. “He’s going, ‘Hey, I saw this so I did this.’ … ‘Yeah, you were right, Brennan.’

“It’s a confidence deal. His body is in better shape. Man, I’m excited to see him out on the field.”

Jackson took home an all-conference honorable mention award last season. He was named to the All-Pac-12 preseason team as an honorable mention player last month, but Jackson appears poised to contend for higher recognition this season. Last week, Jackson was placed on the watch list for the Reese’s Senior Bowl.

One edge rusher departed after last season – Willie Taylor III, who transferred to Eastern Kentucky after recording 2½ sacks off the bench in 2021.

Roff and Edson shared reserve reps with Taylor. The two sophomores appeared in every game last year and contributed 2½ sacks apiece. With experienced returners and Falatea and Stevenson providing valuable depth, the Cougars’ edge-rushing expectations have only grown ahead of the 2022 campaign.

“We’re going to lean on those guys in a lot of different ways to make plays as pass rushers and in the run game,” Cooper said. “With a deeper group, those guys need to have a bigger impact.”

The edges combined for 16½ of the team’s 21 sacks last season. The Cougars are looking for an uptick in production on passing downs. WSU often found success when it rolled out its “Cheetah” defensive line – featuring four edge rushers – on third downs last year. The speed-oriented front has been effective in team drills this preseason.

“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. One thing I told (defensive coordinator Brian Ward) that we have to get better at this season is sacks. Coach Cooper knows that. It’s been an emphasis.”