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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State spring camp notebook: Cougars finding new ways to improve pass-rushing production

March 31, 2022 Updated Thu., March 31, 2022 at 8:58 p.m.

Washington State edge rushers Quinn Roff (20) and Brennan Jackson (80) react to a play against Arizona on Nov. 19 in Pullman.  (Associated Press)
Washington State edge rushers Quinn Roff (20) and Brennan Jackson (80) react to a play against Arizona on Nov. 19 in Pullman. (Associated Press)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – When he handed over the reins earlier this year, Jake Dickert had a request for his successor.

Washington State’s first-year head coach, formerly the team’s defensive coordinator, asked new DC Brian Ward to turn the Cougars’ disruptive defensive line into a more productive unit on passing downs.

“We have all those guys back, and I think we had maybe 18 or 19 sacks last year,” Dickert said last week after a spring camp practice at Rogers Field. “It’s not enough.

“(Ward) has always been in the 30-40 category throughout his history.”

WSU’s D-linemen actually registered 20 combined sacks across 13 games in 2021, but the point stands.

The Cougars enjoy a deep corps of pass-rushers that emerged last year as arguably the team’s most consistent position group, generating a fair amount of pressure and producing a multitude of highlights and momentum-turning reps. Yet for whatever reason, the group didn’t get its hands on opposing quarterbacks as often as Dickert would’ve liked, finishing the year tied for seventh in the Pac-12 in sacks.

While serving at Nevada in the same role last season, Ward oversaw a group that piled up 36½ sacks – ranking in the top 25 in the FBS. The Wolf Pack’s D-line recorded 17 sacks in just nine games the year before.

Ward and Dickert share defensive strategies, stemming to their time coaching together under Craig Bohl at North Dakota State a decade ago. Schematically, the Cougars aren’t transforming. Ward’s 4-2-5 system closely resembles the one that’s been in place at WSU since Dickert introduced it during spring ball in 2020.

But Dickert has encouraged Ward to put his own spin on a proven Cougars defense. The most noticeable change may come on the D-line. WSU’s talented edge rushers could be lining up a few feet farther outside the tackles as Ward tweaks the group’s alignment in order to carry out the task of “finding more ways to cut them loose,” Dickert said.

“I was a little tight in that stuff (last season),” he continued. “I was so gap-oriented. He’s a little more aggressive with our front and I think it’s going to pay off. More importantly, those guys are ready for it. They’re now three years into the technique and the message, and the mindset. I think (improving the D-line) is the biggest thing he’s brought to the table, and being more multiple in the red zone, which I think we are.”

In the defensive trenches, WSU returns all but two backups from last season’s squad, including a spirited All-Pac-12 first-teamer in Ron Stone Jr. and his edge rushing companion in Brennan Jackson, who broke out as a budding standout in the conference last season. The two led WSU with five and four sacks last season, respectively. By comparison, four Nevada players tallied five or more sacks apiece under Ward in 2021. The Cougars are looking for an all-around uptick.

Sophomore Quinn Roff and freshman Andrew Edson made impacts in reserve roles last season under the supervision of longtime Dickert associate and edges coach A.J. Cooper. Newcomers such as Lawrence Falatea and Raam Stevenson Jr. flashed potential last fall camp and both have gained about 20 pounds since. Dickert also mentioned redshirt freshman Gabriel Lopez as a pass-rusher to keep an eye on. Veteran Cougars edge Willie Taylor III entered the transfer portal in January.

“B.J. (Jackson) and R.J. (Stone), they’re a handful, then you mix in Raam’s speed, (Edson’s) toughness, Gabe’s power,” Dickert said Tuesday. Roff has been sidelined at spring camp because of an offseason injury. “We feel like we got a good mix of people that we can mix in there and get to the quarterback, which is one of our biggest emphases going into next year.”

“All of them have their own unique flair,” Jackson said earlier in camp. “We can all learn from them.”

WSU’s interior D-line brings back its four co-starters in Amir Mujahid, Antonio Pule, Ahmir Crowder and Christian Mejia. Mujahid and Pule have been singled out by Dickert and Ward during spring camp. The Cougars beefed up their tackle spot further with the offseason addition of Virginia transfer Nusi Malani. Reserve DT Jesus Echevarria is no longer listed on the roster.

Ward offered an assessment Thursday on the Cougar D-line’s progressions through two weeks of camp.

“They’re playing much more aggressively,” he said. “(First-year D-tackles coach Pete Kaligis) and coach Coop are really getting those guys … developed a lot more. We still got a ways to go, but those guys are starting to understand how everything’s coming together. (We’re) getting those guys to be aggressive and play physical, use the big bodies they have to close gaps and close space in the run game, and in the pass game to be able to collapse that pocket and put pressure on the quarterback.”

For the second season in a row, the Cougars’ D-line is shaping up to be its deepest position group. From first string to third, there doesn’t seem to be much substantial drop-off.

“It just keeps everything fluid,” Stone said Tuesday. “If you can have the top and bottom (of your depth chart) be as close as you can, it’s going to make things a lot more effective defensively.”

Notes and observations from Day 5 of WSU spring camp

Cougars gear up for first scrimmage

After eight weeks of precamp prep and two weeks of limited-contact sessions and scheme installation, Cougars coaches are eager to evaluate players in a gamelike setting.

“We’re going to see some love work and we’re really going to see where our guys are at, how they’ve developed and how fast they’re playing and learning,” Ward said.

WSU will conduct its first scrimmage of spring ball at 10 a.m. Saturday at Gesa Field.

Ward said the Cougars have completed the “bulk of the install” and are in a good place in terms of the mental side of the game.

“(It’s) walkthroughs and we’re not going live tackling right now – quick whistles, keeping guys up and off the ground,” he said. “It gets real when you start hitting for real and start tackling all the way to the ground.”

Avoiding injuries will be a priority, he added. A few Cougars sat out Thursday’s practice, including receiver De’Zhaun Stribling and cornerback Derrick Langford Jr.

“Spring is for learning, seeing what our guys can do, how much they’ve developed mentally and physically,” Ward said. “If we can keep everybody healthy, we’re going to be great. Just seeing guys that have grown from one year to the next, Saturday’s going to be a great day for us.”

Receivers impress; secondary forms

The WSU pass-catchers continued their stellar start to the spring with a number of tough grabs Thursday.

Outside receiver Donovan Ollie outjumped his coverage on a deep 50/50 ball and came down with it for perhaps the day’s top play. Slotback Orion Peters weaved through traffic and raced about 50 yards to the end zone on a quick out, and the 6-foot-3 Tsion Nunnally – along with Peters, another rising name among the Cougars’ young receivers – used his long reach to snag a 40-yard throw down the sideline and tapped a toe inbounds. Slot Lincoln Victor, widely expected to be a star this season, showed off sharp cuts and top-end speed on crossing routes.

“Our receivers room is great,” running back Nakia Watson said. “They’re learning how to be physical with cornerbacks, getting open in one-on-ones, creating that separation and getting high balls.”

In the Cougars’ revamped Air Raid offense, pass-catching depth is crucial.

“We gotta find the playmakers,” Dickert said Saturday. “With more of a tempo offense in what we’re doing, we’re going to rotate in a lot of guys. I want that group to be consistent. It’s flashy right now, but let’s be consistent.”

Ward said WSU is rotating about a dozen players in its secondary to tease out combinations. The favorites to assume the majority of reps at the corner spots are Langford, Chau Smith-Wade, Kaleb Ford-Dement and Chris Jackson. Langford started every game last season after two years as a key reserve. Smith-Wade, a sophomore, was the Cougars’ No. 3 CB last year while Ford-Dement and Jackson, both FBS transfers, provided support if necessary.

WSU lost all four of its safeties from last year’s two-deep.

Grad transfer Jordan Lee, a 46-game participant over the past four years at Nevada, is settling in with the Cougars’ first team at strong safety. He made a diving pick off a deflection Thursday. Free safety is a position to watch. Junior college transfer Sam Lockett III, a Spokane native, and redshirt freshman Adrian Shepherd have been the two best options there so far.

“That’s going to be one of our most competitive positions on defense – finding that eraser in our back third,” Dickert said.

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