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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Behind WSU’s ‘Madden Hands’ rating system — and why the Cougs enjoy it so much

PULLMAN – Ask five people in Washington State’s football program and you’ll get five different answers.

“(Jaden) Hicks has proven time and time again that he can really catch the ball,” WSU head coach Jake Dickert said.

“We’d have to see who’s got the most picks,” defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding said, “and then I’ll give it to him.”

“My boy Chau (Smith-Wade) up there – 99,” defensive back Jackson Lataimua said.

What players and coaches are trying to agree on, all in the name of fun and competitiveness, is who has the best hands in the WSU secondary.

The Cougars have created a system to answer that. It’s called Madden Hands, a rating system designed to identify the WSU defensive back with the best catching ability. It’s headed by cornerbacks coach Ray Brown, who has a physical board in the group’s meeting room with each player’s name and their rating at the time.

It’s a fluid system, based on the video game Madden NFL, which hands out attribute ratings for every player. At WSU, it changes by the game, by the practice. Lataimua might say he has a 99, but during a practice last week, he dropped an easy interception – “so mine probably went down,” he said.

There seem to be two systems running at the same time. There’s the official one, run by Brown, who assigns grades as he sees fit. Then there’s the one the players run between themselves, haggling teammates for dropped picks and joking about which guys get which grades.

For example, Lataimua said cornerback Smith-Wade is at a 99. Safety Hicks, he guessed, is at 88. Same for fellow defensive back Tanner Moku. Lataimua gave himself … 99.

“I don’t know if that’s accurate,” Dickert said . “The rating system might be a little flawed. We’ll go back to the tape.”

There may be no telling which players have which grades, but for the Cougars, that’s part of the fun. Whatever their actual ratings are, they get an edge from the system, using it as fuel for more interceptions and pass breakups, and to develop into better defensive backs together.

“Really, it’s just like our little competitive endurance throughout the season,” Lataimua said. “We just want to compete with each other, just have a healthy competition. Kind of build that competitive edge every day. Keep it live.”

“I challenge those guys, just go out there execute, do their job,” Brown said. “I think they’re gonna make those plays when the balls come to them. It’s just about executing our jobs and doing what we’re supposed to do.”

If looking at accurate stats, safety Sam Lockett III, who leads the team with two interceptions, might lead the rankings. Teammates Kapena Gushiken, Hicks and Lataimua have one interception apiece.

All of WSU’s interceptions this season have come from safeties and nickelbacks. The cornerbacks, from Smith-Wade to Cam Lampkin to Javan Robinson, don’t have an interception in six games .

They’ve had their chances, though. Smith-Wade, according to Pro Football Focus, has dropped two potential interceptions. Hicks has also let one slip through his hands. Those count as incomplete passes, but they won’t do much for the Madden Hands board, which will dock them for missing those opportunities.

Then there are pass breakups, which don’t count as dropped interceptions and don’t always count against the Cougars – not officially, at least. In that department, the leader is Lampkin, who had eight, three more than Smith-Wade . Behind them is Hicks, who has four, and Gushiken and Brennan Jackson with three apiece .

For the Cougars, the system has enjoyed some staying power. It’s been around since at least 2021, Lataimua said, back when former defensive back Jaylen Watson – now a Kansas City Chief – used two interceptions to climb the leaderboard. Last season, former DB Derrick Langford Jr. did the same, handing the reins over to the 2023 Cougars.

This weekend, WSU’s defensive backs could do the Cougars a favor by rising up the Madden Hands board. Up next is a road showdown with No. 9 Oregon and quarterback Bo Nix, who has thrown just one interception all season.

The Cougars might not agree on which players have which ratings, but one thing they can probably agree on: Pick off Nix a time or two and they’ll help their cause – individually and as a team.