WSU’s Parker Henry, an undersized linebacker, has blossomed ferociously since he was moved to nickelback during the Cougars’ preseason camp.
LEWISTON — Parker Henry played football on Monday with the vigor of someone who has spent his entire life performing the wrong role, only to discover the ease and comfort that come when a person begins to do what is natural.
The ferocity of his tackles drew gasps from his teammates. He ended a passing drill by outjumping star receiver Gabe Marks to snag an interception and caused another during a scrimmage by deflecting a pass into a teammate’s hands.
There was a certain rightness to the walk-on’s play during WSU’s third practice of its preseason camp. While Henry, a 5-foot-11, 207-pound junior, is one of those players whose body type doesn’t match up against the monsters who make up Pac-12 starting units, the former linebacker is just right for the newly added position of nickelback.
“I’m not big enough to be a linebacker,” Henry said. “And I’m not quite fast enough to be a safety.”
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But he’s big enough and fast enough to play nickelback, a fifth defensive back replacing a linebacker in the defensive scheme put together by new coordinator Alex Grinch.
The nickelbacks are expected to defend the run. But they also frequently have to match up with the other team’s slot receiver.
Darius Lemora started 10 games at safety as a redshirt freshman last season. He played well, finishing fourth on the team with 68 tackles. But he had some issues with the position.
Primarily, he was too far from the line of scrimmage.
“That’s where all the action is. That’s where all the fun is,” Lemora said. “I like to help in run support more than I like to cover.”
Lemora seems set to start at nickelback for WSU, while Henry is pushing Colton Teglovic, another walk-on who played safety last year, for playing time as a backup.
Because the nickelbacks are tasked with everything from taking on a pulling guard on a power sweep to covering a jitterbug receiver up the seam, they also split their time in practice.
Lemora, Parker and Teglovic can be seen hustling from one set of position drills to another.
“Those guys bounce back and forth and their day is kind of split between defensive back and linebacker,” Grinch said.
“(Nickelback) is a difficult position to play.”