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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State defense taking shape, but not without question marks

Feb. 1, 2022 Updated Tue., Feb. 1, 2022 at 9:11 p.m.

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Washington State’s defense, under a first-year coordinator, will be replacing five veteran starters. That doesn’t mean the Cougars are stepping backward.

New DC Brian Ward plans to refine the system, rather than overhaul it. For good measure, he brought along a pair of plug-and-play standouts from Nevada. They’ll prevent drop-off at the Cougars’ linebacker and safety positions – the two defensive position groups in most need of immediate help after the 2021 season.

WSU’s defense is coming along nicely overall, but it isn’t without offseason question marks.

The unit should get some more answers when the Cougars’ class of 2022 is revealed Wednesday during national signing day.

Is the Cougars’ new linebacking tandem the real deal?

Longtime Cougar linebackers Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers have finally run out of collegiate eligibility. The two ended their Cougar careers in a tie atop the program’s career leaderboard in games played at 56.

The longest-tenured duo in program history – that’s a tough act to follow.

Daiyan Henley and Travion Brown have some big shoes to fill in the heart of WSU’s 4-2-5 defense, but the Cougars aren’t concerned about their new linebacking tandem.

There’s no denying the impact Woods and Rogers had as mature, visceral players in WSU’s defensive resurgence under coach Jake Dickert. It’d be impossible to replicate that level of leadership and game experience.

That said, the Cougars just got more athletic at the LB positions. They’re not inexperienced, either.

Henley racked up a team-high 103 tackles last year as a senior at Nevada and took home All-Mountain West honors. He added four interceptions, finishing first in the nation among all LBs in that category.

Henley began his Wolf Pack career as a receiver before transitioning to defense in 2019.

He’s appeared in 49 collegiate games.

The 6-foot-2, 225-pound grad transfer was one of the transfer portal’s top-ranked defenders when he chose Ward and WSU over offers from Southern Cal and Washington.

Brown is widely expected to move up the depth chart. He served as Rogers’ understudy in the middle over the past two years after starting at nickel as a true freshman in 2019.

Now listed at 6-3 and 230 pounds, Brown is a fierce tackler who appears to have retained his DB speed. He played significant minutes this season, logging 36 stops and an athletic interception during WSU’s Sun Bowl loss to Central Michigan on Dec. 31.

The Cougars will have three or four players competing for reps behind them. Junior Kyle Thornton had a few bright moments this season. Senior Ben Wilson was a special teams standout. The Lake Tapps, Washington, native had played three years at TCU before joining WSU. Coaches and teammates had singled out freshman Francisco Mauigoa as a young player to watch, and the Cougars signed a top-50 linebacker in the country (247Sports) in Californian Taariq Al-Uqdah.

Will WSU return everyone up front?

Five edge rushers saw significant action for the Cougars throughout the 2021 season, and the team’s rotation at defensive tackle sometimes included as many as six bodies.

Save a couple of reserves, they all appear to be coming back.

Assuming none of them transfer, the Cougars are returning four proven edge rushers and four capable tackles from their 2021 squad.

Edge Willie Taylor III left the program last month to explore starting opportunities elsewhere as a grad transfer and Dallas Hobbs – the fifth man off the bench at the tackle position – elected to end his playing career and took a job in the program’s digital media department.

Those are the only departures so far for WSU’s well-stocked D-line.

In fact, the Cougars’ depth in the defensive trenches may have improved.

They recently added an athletic transfer tackle with a wide frame out of the University of Virginia in Nusi Malani (6-6, 275) – their only D-line recruit yet in this class – and they have high-potential youngster DTs such as sophomore Ty Garay-Harris and freshman Sam Carrell waiting in the wings.

WSU settled in last season on an interior rotation featuring seniors Amir Mujahid, Christian Mejia and Antonio Pule, and junior Ahmir Crowder. The Cougars’ DTs didn’t dominate up front, particularly against power-running teams, but they formed a respectable corps. The group combined for 61 tackles – seven for loss – and three sacks.

With Malani’s addition, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the Cougars lose a tackle to the transfer portal.

WSU’s edges enjoyed a breakout year in which a pair of Pac-12 notables emerged. Ron Stone Jr. was one of the conference’s most disruptive defenders and pocketed first-team accolades. Brennan Jackson exhibited similar spirit in his style of play and earned an honorable mention nod. Together, they totaled nine sacks and 109 tackles.

Sophomore Quinn Roff and Taylor – both of whom recorded 2½ sacks in 2021 – were staples in the lineup. Andrew Edson, a freshman from Snoqualmie, Washington, posted two sacks and two fumble recoveries in WSU’s first three games, but his playing time decreased as Roff improved.

Expect Edson to slide into the fourth edge-rushing spot in 2022.

Are two transfers enough in the secondary?

At the beginning of last season, WSU’s depth chart listed four names at the safety positions: Daniel Isom, Halid Djibril, George Hicks III and Tyrone Hill Jr.

There’ll be four new names on the Cougars’ two-deep in 2022.

Isom, Hicks and Hill graduated and moved on. Djibril, sidelined by an early season injury, transferred late in the year.

The Cougars may have found two replacements already.

They brought in strong safety Jordan Lee, a hard-hitting grad transfer who logged nearly 150 tackles for Nevada across 34 games over the past three seasons.

The All-Mountain West honorable mention will presumably be plugged into the starting lineup.

WSU might have two Gonzaga Prep grads in its first-team secondary next season.

Safety Sam Lockett III signed with the Pullman school in December out of the City College of San Francisco. He began his college career at Utah State after earning All-GSL honors with the Bullpups.

His former prep teammate, Armani Marsh, starred for the Cougars at nickel in 2021 and is entering his final year on the Palouse.

While Lockett isn’t a lock at free safety, he’s the favorite.

Who’d be a better option? WSU signed a couple of three-star prep safeties in December and returns a handful of young, untested players at the position. We’ll have to wait until spring camp to see who’s competing for a role.

At cornerback, there’s more clarity. Three key pieces from WSU’s stable secondary are sticking around – second-year starter Derrick Langford Jr., rising sophomore Chau Smith-Wade and Kaleb Ford-Dement, an experienced fifth-year collegian and former All-Conference USA performer at Old Dominion. Ford-Dement’s duties will likely expand.

The next man up is probably junior Chris Jackson, who played infrequently in 2021 after transferring from Michigan State.

WSU’s CB unit took a major hit when Jaylen Watson relinquished his final year of eligibility and entered the NFL draft pool. Watson, strong and rangy, had been tasked with covering the best receivers WSU’s opponents could offer.

The Cougars are missing a lock-down CB. Will they develop one, or find one?

Do changes come to WSU’s defensive M.O.?

Dickert had the Cougars’ defense trending upward, so he hired a DC who could take the reins without making any wholesale changes.

WSU will employ the same 4-2-5 set it has since Dickert installed it in early 2020. Ward ran that system at Nevada over the past two seasons.

Dickert and Ward share defensive styles, stemming back to their time together at FCS powerhouse North Dakota State under coach Craig Bohl in 2010.

“We come from the same family of coaches,” Ward said during an introductory news conference in December. “We speak the same language, in terms of our terminology and what we believe in.”

They emphasize a “bend but don’t break” mentality that usually shows up on the stat sheet in takeaways and points allowed. WSU and Nevada both ranked in the top 10 nationally in the former category and among the best in their respective conferences in the latter.

Sounds like it’ll be the same brand of defense Cougar fans became familiar with last season. Ward said he’ll make some tweaks, though.

He won’t eliminate certain peculiarities of Dickert’s system – like the speed-oriented defensive line, comprised of four edge rushers, that produced several third-down highlights.

Most of WSU’s defensive staffers come from the same coaching tree.

The Cougars return edges coach A.J. Cooper, a longtime Dickert associate, and DBs assistant Jordan Malone, who also has a pre-WSU background with the first-year coach. Ward will tutor linebackers while Pete Kaligis – who worked alongside Dickert under Bohl at Wyoming from 2017-19 – takes over D-tackles.

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