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Washington State defensive ends Ron Stone Jr., Brennan Jackson bring out strengths through friendly competition

Washington State edge rushers Brennan Jackson, left, and Ron Stone Jr. have cemented a Cougars defense that has allowed fewer than 20 points in four games.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Both on the field and outside of their sport, Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson bring out the best in each other. For Washington State’s standout edge rushers, there’s an amicable rivalry “in everything we do,” Jackson said.

“If there’s a winner and a loser, we both want to be the winner,” he added.

Pass-rushing production, weight-room gains, academics and non-football contests – like card games – factor into the intrasquad competition, according to Jackson.

“And it’s all friendly,” he said during the preseason. “We love each other and we want to make each other better. There’s a lot of chirping between us.”

Jackson and Stone can often be found in the WSU football facility squaring off off in heated rounds of spades.

“It can be something as simple as, ‘I think the next card I pull is going to be red,’ ” Jackson said last month. “It can be the silliest of things, but it just goes with how competitive football is.”

Stone and Jackson – “RJ” and “BJ,” for short – formed a bond over the past five years in Pullman while developing into team leaders.

Now the heart and soul of the Cougars’ defense, Stone and Jackson provide motivation for one another and “raise the level of everybody around them,” coach Jake Dickert said.

“It’s funny, because they have such different personalities,” Dickert added. “BJ is so serious. He’s planning out his meals. RJ has fun. Not that he doesn’t take it seriously – he’s just a different type of personality. But how they affect the team is really important.”

The WSU captains, both third-year starters, have adopted player-coach duties for a young but deep and talented position group. The Cougars’ edge rotation features six capable players. Of course, none makes more of an impact than Stone and Jackson.

Statistically, the two haven’t matched their level of production in 2021, when the Cougars’ defensive line relied heavily on their contributions .

Last year, Stone piled up 63 tackles and 11½ stops in the backfield, including five sacks. He earned first-team All-Pac-12 recognition.

That success sometimes overshadowed Jackson’s accomplishments. Jackson came up with 46 tackles – six for loss – and four sacks en route to an all-conference honorable mention nod.

“It goes to show how effective we can be when we’re on the field together,” said Jackson, a watch list player this year for the Reese’s Senior Bowl. “Teams have to game-plan for one of us.

“(Stone) had such a great year last year. He was making plays and it was because he studied film and knew what these guys were going to do. When the plays came, he made them. That’s how our group is – we have to make the plays that come to us. A lot of them came to him last year, and he just balled out.”

This season, Jackson has had 26 tackles with 7½ for loss, two sacks and two pass deflections. Stone is close behind with 20 tackles, four TFLs, two sacks and three pass breakups. To be sure, he’s still putting plenty of pressure on quarterbacks. Stone is tied for the Pac-12 lead in QB hits with 10.

“It’s a great competition,” said Stone, who landed on watch lists this preseason for the Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy, both of which recognize the most outstanding defender in college football. “I’m not sitting here envious when Brennan has success. I’m more excited than anyone when people make plays from our room. I’m excited for him and I want to have success myself.”

WSU (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12), in the midst of a three-game skid, is looking for an uptick in pass-rushing production Saturday when it visits Stanford (3-5, 1-5), which has struggled to protect its QB this season.

Stone and Jackson exchanged quips and compliments throughout a recent Q&A with The Spokesman-Review. What follows are highlights from the 25-minute conversation, with commentary included.

S-R: What do you find most impressive about the other edge rusher’s abilities?

Jackson: “(Stone) just causes quarterbacks to be uncomfortable. Quarterbacks line up and see RJ and are like, ‘OK, I’m gonna have about 2 seconds to throw the ball, because he’s gonna get there.’ I don’t think there’s a tackle in our league that can really sustain blocking him for an entire game without allowing hurries, hits or sacks. He just has such a big plethora of moves in his pass-rushing arsenal that it’s hard for tackles to hone in on what he’s going to do next.”

Stone, at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, describes himself as more of a “finesse” player. He began his Cougar career as a “rush” linebacker, a position that emphasized speed and agility and “staying away from blockers,” rather than overpowering them.

Stone: “Brennan was an actual defensive end, where it’s more physical and you can kinda see that in our styles to this day. Brennan is the more physical player. He’s running through guys, throwing them down. … (Jackson) is just more physical than mostly anyone he goes against. You look at some of the things he does and you’re like, ‘Geez, what an odd amount of strength.’ And just his motor – when he gets going, he’s like a bull in a china shop.”

That simile has been used often by coaches and players this year to encapsulate Jackson’s bulldozing playing style. Jackson and Stone released a line of apparel recently. Some of the merchandise features the expression “bull in a china shop.”

Jackson, at 6-4 and 263 pounds, is the Cougars’ biggest and strongest edge rusher by a significant margin. Several of his TFLs this season have resulted in loud pops and produced audible reactions from crowds.

“That’s why teams have trouble, because it’s not the same dude,” Jackson said. “They’re going against two completely different people, and we switch (spots).”

S-R: First impressions of each other?

Jackson and Stone weren’t fast friends when they first arrived in Pullman in 2018.

“Not that we had any beef,” Stone said. “We weren’t particularly close during our freshman and sophomore years. We just weren’t going out of the way to hang out with each other.”

Jackson recalled his first meeting with Stone: “God, he talks a lot.”

Stone has a reputation for being loquacious. He speaks with charismatic confidence, loud and exuberant – more so than anyone on the team. Jackson is much more restrained in terms of his leadership style.

“Every day in practice, he’s like, ‘Bring your dog (energy), Brennan,’” Jackson said. “I’m just cool, calm and collected in practice.”

“Brennan doesn’t be bringing the energy sometimes,” Stone chipped in, laughing. “You gotta hold everyone accountable. If you’re juiceless, you’re useless.”

Without revealing too much when asked of his first impressions, Stone said there were eccentric qualities about Jackson’s personality that took some getting used to.

“I was odd,” Jackson said. “I used to wear glasses for no reason (nonlensed glasses).”

Nowadays, Stone and Jackson are roommates for WSU’s away games, and each is well-acquainted with the quirks of the other. They share similar interests off the field – “pop culture, TV, movies, sports,” Stone said – and often square off in disc golf during the offseason.

“It just depends on Brennan’s schedule with his girlfriend, whether he’s going to make it out with the guys,” Stone said.

Jackson defended himself.

“Sometimes, you just get busy,” he said. “It’s a big emphasis we made: The edges need to be really good friends. These are the guys you’re going to war with. You want to know their stories and have good chemistry with them, so we hang out a bunch. We do a bunch of Frisbee golf. I haven’t gotten into pickleball like (Stone) and (edge rusher Quinn Roff) have, but maybe one of these days I’ll give them a run for their money.”

Jackson and Stone first crossed paths about a year before they joined WSU. Both attended a Rivals camp in Los Angeles in spring 2017.

“I was coming to Washington State already, and he wasn’t,” Jackson said. “We were hanging out and I was like, ‘How many offers you got?’ I told him I’m going to Washington State and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I got an offer there.’ ”

At the time, Stone wasn’t seriously considering the Cougars. But he was convinced that “this is the spot for me” after taking an official visit to the Pullman school later that year.

S-R: When did the friendship start to click?

Stone: “I think the COVID year (2020) helped a lot. Yeah, there was a lot of social distancing, but it was more like individual stuff, where the edges hang out with the edges. The more you hang out, you realize, ‘I don’t despise this person.’ Now, (he and Jackson) are hanging out pretty often.”

Jackson: “That’s when we started getting closer. I think it’s a good part of the story, because we weren’t always close and whatnot. We realized that both of our goals aligned. We’re passionate about the same things and what we want to accomplish. We realized, ‘Oh, we do have a lot in common.’”

Stone and Jackson didn’t share a position for the first two years of their WSU careers.

“We gravitated toward different groups on the team,” Jackson said.

Under former defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys (2018-19), Stone was stationed outside the tackles at the “rush” linebacker position while Jackson lined up inside. Dickert took the DC job in early 2020 and merged the rush and D-end positions to form the edge group.

S-R: How comparable were your journeys to this point?

Stone broke out earlier than Jackson in both prep play and at the collegiate level.

“RJ was a dog in high school,” Jackson said. “He played varsity all four years. Me, it took until about junior year to get a varsity spot.”

Stone, the son of former longtime NFL lineman Ron Stone, got an early start to his vocation. He cracked the starting lineup at Valley Christian High (San Jose, California) as a sophomore. By his senior season, Stone had become a top-50 defensive end prospect in the country.

He took a redshirt as a WSU true freshman in 2018, then worked his way up the depth chart in 2019, claiming a playing role. Stone started two games and was highly productive in limited snaps.

“It was a great opportunity, just based on the availability of guys,” Stone said. “We didn’t have much depth at the rush position. After my freshman year, I was one of the only guys left in the room. At that point, I knew I had the ability to play.”

Jackson signed with WSU as a three-star recruit out of Great Oak High in Temecula, California. He redshirted in 2018 and missed most of his second season with a leg injury, then earned a starting gig in 2020, capping the four-game season with an All-Pac-12 honorable mention nod.

“The first game I played (in 2020), I ended up being defensive player of the game,” Jackson said. “Instantly, it was like, ‘I got something here.’ I hadn’t played at all up to that point. There were two guys above me that were playing, and me and RJ ended up beating out the older guys. That was the moment, for me, where I could see the payoff from all the hard work I put in.”

With the help of his mother – Amy Jackson, a former personal trainer with a passion for bodybuilding – Jackson transformed his physique, packing on 30 pounds of muscle since his rookie season.

“When you put in so much hard work, those results are going to come,” he said.