Accustomed to the flat plains of Indiana, and a more urban life in the Indianapolis suburb of Avon, Nathaniel James was “mesmerized” by the pine trees and tumbling hills that greeted him when the three-star defensive tackle touched down in Spokane last spring for an official visit to Washington State.
“The view, as soon as I got out of the airport, I knew it was different,” James said. “Then, on the drive – we drove from Spokane to Pullman – it’s just that hour and a half drive, driving through the hills, just seeing the mountains and a different kind of atmosphere out there. It’s really nice.”
A kid from the Midwest was immediately sold on a college-football career in the Inland Northwest.
But, despite the hospitality the Cougars showed James, who had an amiable host in redshirt sophomore nose tackle Dallas Hobbs, and his relationship with position coach Jeff Phelps, who had recruited his older brother Elijah Daniel when he was at Minnesota, the Avon High defensive lineman and his impending college career faced some uncertainty once WSU’s first bye week hit.
When Tracy Claeys left his defensive-coordinator post in October, without more than a few days’ notice, it not only shook things up for the 2019 Cougars, but also raised potential questions for the next wave of defensive players coming to Pullman.
“I was definitely contemplating for sure on my decision, as far as recruiting wise, if I wanted to stay there and how this would affect things,” said James, who pledged to the Cougars in April, becoming WSU’s first defensive commit in the 2020 class. “With the defensive schemes and then you change the D-coordinator, things could switch up. And obviously how I fit in was one of the roles that put into me committing and wanting to go there. So, with that switch-up, it definitely had me contemplating.”
Today, James and as many as 20 other high-school prospects are expected to sign binding agreements with the Cougars when the NCAA’s early period officially opens. For Hawaiian quarterback Jayden de Laura and the offensive commits, it might have been reassuring to see coach and de facto offensive coordinator Mike Leach re-up with the Cougars after his name was linked to vacancies at Arkansas and Mississippi.
But for now, WSU can’t guarantee the same closure on the other side of the ball.
In the short term, Leach appointed inside-linebackers coach Roc Bellantoni to interim defensive coordinator and elevated cornerbacks coach Darcel McBath to co-interim defensive coordinator. But WSU’s coach hasn’t made any decisions on the long term, and indicated last week he won’t until the Cougars get through the Dec. 27 Cheez-It Bowl against Air Force.
“We’ll work through the bowl game first,” Leach said.
So, as many as 10 defensive recruits could be inking their letters of intent without any real assurance of continuity – either in scheme or on the coaching staff.
Leach said he would consider in-house candidates when selecting WSU’s full-time DC – “Oh yeah,” he said, “of course, always” – but there’s no guarantee of that happening. Leach not only left Pullman, but left the region, to bring in Alex Grinch, previously at Missouri, and Claeys, who was taking a yearlong sabbatical at home in Kansas when he received a call from the WSU coach.
If Leach makes an external hire, there’s a chance he’ll bring in a coordinator with his own views on how to run a defense – views that don’t necessarily align with the ones WSU’s position coaches have been spewing out in living rooms over the last year. Not only that, but the future of those assistant coaches could be in limbo if Leach goes outside the program for his defensive coordinator, who might prefer to bring his own help.
But, those scenarios haven’t come up on the recruiting trail, Leach maintains, and prospective Cougars don’t seem too bothered by the changing pieces of WSU’s defense.
“No, not really,” Leach said. “It’s just been business as usual and we’re just pressing ahead, you know?”
Claeys wasn’t an insignificant part of WSU’s recruiting efforts, but he also wasn’t the point man for many of the players who will be signing with the Cougars on Wednesday. The team delegates assistant coaches to various regions as “area recruiters” and prospects communicate routinely with their future position coaches.
So, while James had a few interactions with Claeys, his contact points were primarily Phelps, WSU’s defensive-line coach, and outside-linebackers coach Matt Brock, who recruits heavily in the Midwest for the Cougars because of his background in the Mid-American Conference.
“(They were) telling me basically how great of a player I am and the potential I have and (Claeys) leaving and another coach on the coaching staff (Bellantoni) stepping up and taking his job and being the defensive coordinator,” James said. “It had no effect. The defensive scheme is still the same and the way they do things there is not going to change at all. That was one of the things that kind of reassured me on the decision I made.”
Moon Ashby is a three-star outside linebacker from Valley Christian High in San Jose, Calif., who, like James, was committed to the Cougars well before the defensive-coordinator shuffle.
“I was pretty sold,” Ashby said. “I liked the environment, too.”
Ashby didn’t second-guess his decision when Claeys left, though, stating the importance of his relationship with Brock, who, pending a change, will be the recruit’s position coach in Pullman next season.
“It didn’t matter to me,” he said. “Because coach Brock was still there and I’d still be playing edge rusher, probably, most definitely. And I felt like it was always going to work out.”
Other recruits, such as Colorado’s Justin Lohrenz, pledged to the Cougars after Claeys’ departure. Asked about the midseason defensive-coordinator drama in Pullman, the defensive end said over the phone last week, “Actually, this is my first time hearing about this.”
Would a cloudy future make Lohrenz rethink his decision? Absolutely not, the Columbine High senior said.
“The position coaches and style over there and the Pac-12’s been my dream,” Lohrenz said, “and I don’t think there’s anything that can happen to make me want to do something else.”