The battle for the starting nickelback spot is one of the fiercest at WSU training camp right now, and nickelback coach Roy Manning is loving every second of it
LEWISTON, Idaho – The battle to replace the Bulldog is in full swing.
Two days into Washington State’s annual fall camp sojourn to Lewiston, the fight to fill Parker “Bulldog” Henry’s shoes at the starting nickelback spot might just be the hottest position battle in progress.
In one corner is Hunter Dale, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound junior from the suburbs of New Orleans who’s been running with the first team defense, and who, during Saturday’s practice, made a highlight reel-worthy diving interception of a Luke Falk pass.
But in the other corner, senior Kirkland Parker lurks dangerously.
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He’s the more experienced of the two, having backed up Henry at nickelback last season. He’s had his shining moments in camp too, and Friday was his day. On WSU’s first practice in Lewiston, Parker picked off a Falk pass meant for Renard Bell on a corner route, then followed up with his own diving interception against backup quarterback Tyler Hilinski.
Who will ultimately prevail?
“Heh heh heh, it’s pretty tight right now, I’m gonna be honest. I love it,” nickelbacks and outside linebackers coach Roy Manning cackles and rubs his hands together gleefully. “Kirk(land) has played the position in the past and Hunter is new to the position as of this spring, so both guys are somewhat starting at the same starting point. And they’re both doing a really good job.”
Dale and Parker bring different attributes to the position.
At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Parker has the long, lean physique of the Division I-level basketball combo guard he was before he walked on to the football team at Blinn Junior College in Texas.
To pursue his football career, Parker turned down an opportunity to play basketball for Mark Few at Gonzaga and took a chance on himself.
Basketball was his first love, and because of it, he only played football during his freshman and senior years of high school, which meant he had limited film to show college football recruiters.
Giving up basketball was a tough call, Parker says, though he adds philosophically, “But life gives you whatever else, you take it. Thank God for Blinn Junior College.”
Parker redshirted his first year at Blinn. Then, in 2014, he had 17 tackles, two picks and three pass breakups, and that caught the eye of Alex Grinch, who, at the time, had just left Missouri to become defensive coordinator at WSU.
“Coach Grinch, he was an SEC guy, and I’ve always wanted to play in the SEC. So he just kind of drew me in,” Parker says. “Grinch has got that edge to him. That’s what I liked.”
Parker started his WSU career at cornerback, but has moved between cornerback and safety depending on the fluctuations of the depth chart.
Dale too, came to WSU in somewhat roundabout fashion.
The Louisiana native was a three-star recruit who, by his junior year, had about two dozen scholarship offers. If Bo Pelini hadn’t gotten fired at Nebraska and Will Muschamp hadn’t gotten fired at Florida, Dale would have been either a Cornhusker or a Gator because those were the two schools he was committed to – one after the other – before the departures of both coaching staffs left him hanging.
Suddenly, Dale was left in a tough situation. He’d shut down his recruitment after committing first to Nebraska, and then, after Pelini’s departure, to Florida. Now, Signing Day had come and gone, and he wasn’t sure what to do.
All he knew was that relationships were important to him and he did not want to go to a school where he did not know the coaches.
His father, Wyatt Harris, suggested Dale contact some of the colleges that had shown interest in him early to inquire if they still had scholarships available.
WSU was one of those schools. With Grinch having just joined the staff, the Cougars had some a few scholarships remaining, and the new defensive coordinator was still trying to recruit players to fit his system.
Dale visited during spring ball and was sold on WSU. He signed with the Cougars as a safety, and by the fall of 2015, he’d already established himself as a valuable contributor on special teams.
Last season, as a sophomore, Dale cracked the depth chart on defense for the first time. He went through the season as Rob Taylor’s main backup at free safety and in addition to his regular role on special teams, he played safety in about five games.
This spring, Dale was asked to move to nickelback. He emerged from spring ball a hair ahead of Parker on the depth chart, and in the offseason, he worked hard to mold his body into a leaner, stronger version its his former self.
“Coach Grinch set goal weights for everybody that he wanted people to get to. I was 210, and he wanted me at 190. So I just took that very seriously,” Dale said. “My diet was very strict – a lot of greens, chicken and brown rice – and I did a lot of extra work like lifting and cardio.
“I stayed away from sugar and drank a lot of water. It helped my performance because the lighter I got, the faster I got. And I was also getting stronger from constantly working out and doing what the coaches said.”
But, motivated by the lure of more playing time in his final year of eligibility, Parker has worked hard too.
And so, the battle between Dale and Parker has extended into fall camp. Right now, it’s pretty much deadlocked.
Dale is the more cerebral player of the two.
“He’s extremely smart,” Manning says. “He came from safety land, so he knows everything literally on the entire back end of the defense, and that helps him a lot.”
Adds Dale, “I can pick up on things fast. I know where to be before things happen sometimes.”
But Dale concedes that Parker is a little quicker than he is. And, says Manning, Parker’s physicality also stands out.
“Kirkland is a very physical kid,” Manning says. “He has some good lateral movement, I will say that. He’ll stick his foot in the ground and go. He had one of those interceptions yesterday that was really just an athletic play – he kinda stayed on top of the receiver and beat him to the spot and ran the route for him.”
From the coaches’ perspective, having two guys locked in a ferocious fight to be the starter is a great thing. Especially at a hybrid position like nickelback where Grinch could ostensibly slot in different players based on matchups and skillsets.
“It’s kind of a good problem to have,” says Manning. “Ideally, as you have seen, we don’t like a guy to take 90 snaps. We would love to have a solid two-deep at every position and rotate those guys.”