Shalom Luani has been held out of practice since he was charged with assault last Wednesday. As of Tuesday, it's still unclear as to whether Luani will start at free safety against EWU this weekend
Washington State safety Shalom Luani’s status for this Saturday’s season opener against Eastern Washington is still a question mark.
Luani has not practiced with the team since his arrest last Wednesday on an assault charge levied after he allegedly punched a WSU student in the face when a fight broke out outside a Domino’s Pizza branch in Pullman.
However, Leach ducked around questions from reporters last week as to whether Luani’s non-participation in practice should be interpreted as a suspension.
When asked again during the Pac-12 coaches conference call Tuesday morning whether Luani would be available for the EWU game, Leach was similarly non-committal.
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“We’ll just wait and see what unfolds,” Leach said.
Pressed to define whether Luani’s non-participation in practice constitutes a suspension, Leach then said, “He’s been doing exactly what we want him to do. We’ll just wait and see at the game.”
Pullman Police Department spokesperson Chris Tennant said Monday afternoon that he does not anticipate to have anything more to report on Luani’s case until early next week. The investigation is still ongoing. The police have, however, managed to obtain copies of Domino’s Pizza’s security surveillance tape from the night of the altercation. Tennant declined to share what they gleaned from the video.
Luani led WSU with four interceptions in 2015 and also registered 90 tackles — third-most on the defense. His absence would come as a blow to a Cougars defense that will have its hands full trying to contain EWU’s All-American star receiver Cooper Kupp.
If Luani is held out of the EWU game as a punitive measure, the Cougs could look to either sophomore Hunter Dale or junior Charleston White to step in at free safety. Dale played mainly special teams last season, appearing in seven games. White is more experienced, having played in 22 games over the last two years.
White was a cornerback during his first two years at WSU but he switched from cornerback to safety this spring because of a lack of depth at the position.
WSU defensive coordinator Alex Grinch also declined to comment on Luani’s status for the opening game but said Tuesday that from a mental standpoint White is better suited to the safety position because his system requires the safeties to communicate calls to the defense.
“From a mental capacity, we ask a lot of our safeties from a communication standpoint, and he’s answered that,” Grinch said. “For some guys being on an island as a corner, sometimes you’re in your own world out there, you’re not making communications and everyone else is making communications to you. You’re not as challenged mentally though from a physical and athletic standpoint, certainly you are challenged.
“Some guys have more of a comfort level being closer to the football. With (White’s) mental aptitude, it became clear in the spring that he had a higher comfort level 10 yards away from the ball.”
WSU was thin at safety in 2015, with Luani and Taylor Taliulu playing almost every snap between them at free and strong safety, respectively.
Grinch said Tuesday that despite White’s conversion from cornerback and the additions of freshman Jalen Thompson and City College of San Francisco transfer Robert Taylor, it’s difficult to determine whether the Cougs have better depth at safety this year.
“We’re probably in a similar scenario as last year, quite honestly,” Grinch said. “Is it better? I want to say yes, but it’s too early to tell. It ties into game reps and how people perform and how they prepare over the next seven weeks.”
The Cougs’ defensive coordinator generally looks for quality over quantity, meaning, regardless of where a player is listed on the depth chart, Grinch won’t play someone if he doesn’t think the player can fill in competently.
“Just because you’re No. 2 on the depth chart at one position doesn’t mean anything. you might be just as far away from playing as the fourth string guy redshirting (at another position),” Grinch said.