Jeff Phelps has a reputation as a technician, and his attention to detail is already rubbing off on the WSU Cougars' defensive line
It’s a subtle change, but one new Washington State defensive line coach Jeff Phelps hopes will help his linemen get off the ball faster and get to the quarterback more effectively.
This Saturday, when the Cougars put on their annual Crimson and Gray Spring Scrimmage at Joe Albi Stadium in Spokane, watch how the defensive linemen position themselves on the line of scrimmage before the snap.
Instead of lining up directly across from opposing offensive linemen this season, WSU’s defensive linemen will start off lined up in gaps in between the opposition instead.
“It’s something a little bit different from what they did in the past. In the past, they’d be ‘head-up’ on the offensive line, and then they would have to make a movement to get to a certain gap,” Phelps said. “What we said was, ‘Let’s have them line up in the gap and go from there. It allows them to get a great take off, which is one thing we try to coach, and can help with undersized linemen.
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“When you get that vertical push and you get that pad level down, you have more control over the line of scrimmage and have more control of your body. And it’s easy to change direction and finish the tackle.”
Getting good vertical push and maintaining low pad level throughout are two things Phelps has stressed repeatedly this month in his first spring with the Cougars.
Phelps joined WSU in January to replace the much-beloved Joe Salave’a, who left to join Willie Taggart’s new staff at Oregon.
The 40-year-old Chicago native is known for being a stickler for details, and that’s precisely why WSU head coach Mike Leach hired him off Tracy Claeys’ recently fired Minnesota staff after the Cougars lost to the Golden Gophers in the Holiday Bowl
“He’s a real good technician, just a great technician with a great presence out there,” Leach said. “That’s the thing I think is really impressive. Technique-wise, there’s lower pads, more violent hands. He’s a really good teacher.”
Phelps’ teaching talents and technician nature were on full display all spring as he got acquainted with his new players and introduced a variety of new drills designed to coach details and break up monotony.
“He wants us to work more technique than anything. Most of our practices are all about technique. He feels like if we master the technique, we’ll be better defensive linemen,” says sophomore defensive end Derek Moore. “Last year, I would say we were focused on getting off the ball and being in the right place and playing one play at a time.”
For instance, in one drill Phelps likes, the linemen get into three point stances, with a yellow foam pad positioned against their outside foot and a rolled towel sitting just over the pad. At the snap, the linemen explode out of their stances, stepping over the pad with their outside foot while trying to scoop up the towel as they advance forward.
The idea, in this case, is to maintain low pad level and practice the dip-and-rip move while stepping around an offensive lineman and advancing to pursue the quarterback.
Phelps gets down on one knee close to the yellow pad and observes his players with a watchful eye, occasionally making corrections.
“Now McBroom, you just picked (the towel) up,” Phelps calls to senior defensive tackle Garrett McBroom.
“You want to bring this through like I’m ripping through, scooping it up. You want to bring that motion through like I’m ripping through that arm so they can’t hold on to me,” Phelps says, sweeping his arm up to demonstrate a ripping motion.
Scooping versus picking up. These minute details matter to Phelps, who stresses fundamentals above all else – a philosophy he’s adopted from many of his coaching mentors.
Phelps’ most recent boss, former Minnesota coach Claeys, started out as a defensive line coach before rising through the ranks. Claeys’ predecessor, Jerry Kill, started his coaching career as a defensive coordinator. Also, longtime UW assistant and defensive line guru Randy Hart was at Notre Dame when Phelps was coaching at Northern Illinois in the mid 2000s, and Phelps recalls working Notre Dame’s summer camps and picking up as much as he could from Hart and his staff.
“Playing low, getting off the ball and using your hands. Those are all fundamental things for defensive linemen, so it doesn’t matter if the guy goes forward, backwards or sideways. You gotta play low and get off the ball,” Phelps says. “No matter what the scenario, if the fundamentals are sound, that holds true throughout.”
That focus on fundamentals holds true off the field too. For Phelps, this spring has been all about getting to know his players because he believes that will help establish a foundation for a close, long-term relationship with them.
“The hardest part is getting to know everybody’s name, know where they’re from, what their background is, are they a first generation college student, what makes them tick?” Phelps says. “Coach Joe did a great job, and I’m trying to come in and bridge that gap.”
WSU enjoyed continuity on the defensive line with Salave’a, who, by the time he left, was one of only two defensive coaches remaining who’d been with the Cougars since Leach’s first season. Phelps says he too hopes to be at WSU for a while.
“It’s a stressful situation for a young person when the guy who recruited you and brought you here isn’t here any more all of a sudden,” Phelps says. “It affects some guys, and I don’t want to be the guy who bounces around. At the end of the day, if you’re being taken care of, there’s no reason to leave.
“I know when I was coming up as a player, I remembered the coaches who were consistent, so I want to give a similar experience to the student-athletes I coach so they know this guy isn’t going to up and leave.”