Jahad Woods had one of the most impressive statistical feats by a Washington State football player not named Anthony Gordon last season, registering 141 tackles in 13 games.
For a defense that didn’t have much to celebrate, the achievement was praiseworthy. The school’s media relations department would point out it was the first time since 2015 a WSU player surpassed 100 tackles (Peyton Pelluer), and the first time anyone had broached 140 since 1991. It factored into the conference naming Woods All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention and cemented the junior’s place as one of the league’s premier linebackers.
The output blew Jake Dickert away, too. For all the wrong reasons.
“Jahad doesn’t need 141 tackles,” WSU’s new defensive coordinator told reporters Thursday on a Zoom call. “If that happens, we’ve completely failed. He’s got to count on other people around him, too.”
That’s just one of the things Dickert will emphasize as he attempts to rebuild WSU’s defense using the same philosophies, values and concepts that allowed Wyoming to reach such lofty heights in the Mountain West last year.
From the outside, it may have looked like an overwhelming task for a first-year coordinator, but when Dickert accepted the mission of rescuing WSU’s defense, he was able to compartmentalize things.
The to-do list was long and hideous for a DC inheriting a unit that conceded 30 points or more in eight of its final 10 games last season, and seldom showed resolve when things went from bad to ugly. So, rather than look at the big, troubling picture, Dickert began with the most pressing items first, one at a time.
No. 1: Neutralize the run. The Cougars allowed opponents to rush for 4.9 yards per carry last season, and bad habits followed them all the way to Phoenix for the Cheez-It Bowl, where WSU conceded 371 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a 31-21 loss to Air Force.
“The first thing we want to do, it’s yards per carry,” Dickert said. “I want to have a physical mindset, I want to play a certain way. The old mindset of cutting the head off the snake. We want to make these teams one-dimensional.
“You start there, you try to keep guys behind the chains, you can pin your ears back. It opens the call sheet a little bit more for a defensive coordinator. It’s a fit mentality, it’s every man doing his job.”
No. 2: Make strides in the red zone. It’s inevitable that WSU’s opponents will come away with points on more than 75-80% of their trips into the red zone. They just need to come away with seven points far less than they did last season. The Cougars allowed their opponents to score touchdowns on 69% of red zone trips in 2019. Meanwhile, Dickert’s Wyoming defense excelled in that category, allowing the opposition to score on 35% of red zone trips.
“Can’t do it,” Dickert said. “We can bend, but we can’t break. And we’ve got to bull up when we get down there. That was kind of our calling card of where we were at last year as far as myself and these other staff members.”
Just about anyone who spent time watching the Cougars last year would have a decent shot at guessing Dickert’s third objective.
“So, red zone defense, yards per carry,” he said, “and then limit explosive plays.”
No. 3: Diffuse the explosives. By more than a few metrics, WSU’s 49-22 victory over Stanford was one of the best defensive efforts of the season for the Cougars. But even that game demonstrated WSU’s inability to prevent run/pass plays of 20 yards or longer, because the Cougars still conceded 11. The Cougars could usually cite the reasons for the breakdowns — missed tackles, blown coverages, or the not infrequent example of one player trying to do another’s job — but they were never able to patch up the issue.
“I think that’s one of my No. 1 jobs, is to put our guys in the best position to limit explosive plays,” Dickert said. “So I put that on me more than these guys and the scheme we’re trying to implement. If we can make the offense earn everything we get, I think we’ve got enough playmakers to make things happen, to create some things.
“But those are the three areas we really want to focus on.”
Scrimmage No. 1
Ideally, the Cougars will hold two scrimmages before their Nov. 7 season opener at Oregon State. The first of those will take place Saturday morning/early afternoon at Martin Stadium.
Coach Nick Rolovich hasn’t determined how long the scrimmage will last, in terms of play total, but indicated it would be a key step toward narrowing down the quarterback race, determining depth at certain positions and measuring how conditioned his team is less than three weeks before it travels to Corvallis.
“I’m hoping to get closer to knowing who our starting quarterback is,” Rolovich said. “I hope we get to see some questions about some of the depth, especially at wide receiver, some of the young offensive line. I want to see the defense have to work together from top to bottom in a situation where they don’t necessarily have the coaches behind them telling them what to do, or coaching that up.
“I’d really like to see what our situational awareness is, because you’re installing the offense and defense. Where are we going to be when it’s third down, or red zone. I want to see where our conditioning is. There’s a ton we’ve got to see.”
Depending on personal preference or where a team is in camp, coaches will use various formats in scrimmage scenarios, occasionally matching the No. 1 offensive unit against the No. 2 defensive unit, and vice versa. Rolovich said Saturday’s scrimmage would follow a “good on good” format, indicating the No. 1 offense will line up against the No. 1 defense, and so on.
All three QBs in the race for the starting job, redshirt sophomore Cammon Cooper, redshirt freshman Gunner Cruz and true freshman Jayden de Laura, will have chances to lead the No. 1 offense.
During a relief appearance on the WSU coaches show Thursday, athletic director Pat Chun told play-by-player announcer Matt Chazanow the school would have fans in the bleachers this season after all.
Fans of the cardboard variety, that is.
“We’re in a good place with cardboard fans,” Chun said. “Hopefully we make that announcement soon here.”
Other college football programs, Major League Baseball and various leagues around the world have experimented with cardboard fans since sports returned from a COVID-19 hiatus. Virtual fans had the chance to “watch” NBA games from electronic boards in the Orlando-based bubble.
Asked if there were any celebrity cardboard fans he’d like to see in the Martin Stadium bleachers, Rolovich responded “I’d love to see John Candy, (WSU SID), Bill Stevens, Rodney Dangerfield. Socially distanced in the first row.”