PULLMAN – On the heels of consecutive Pac-12 losses, Mike Leach and Washington State entered the bye week with plenty of headaches to solve.
Add one more headache to the agenda.
Amid WSU’s worst start to a Pac-12 season since 2012, second-year defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has resigned from his post with the Cougars, the school announced in a news release Friday after The Spokesman-Review confirmed the news through an independent source.
Claeys leaves WSU after just 18 games and approximately nine months after negotiating a contract extension with the school that was set to keep the defensive coordinator in Pullman through the 2021 season. The monetary details of Claeys’ contract were not made available to the public, but a source confirmed because he left on his own terms, the school would not be on the hook for the remainder of his three-year contract.
According to The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman, Leach wanted Claeys to stay at WSU, but the DC “opted to resign for personal reasons.” It’s unclear, however, what those personal reasons may have been.
“We appreciate Tracy’s efforts the past year and a half and wish him the best going forward,” Leach said in a school press release.
In his own tweet, Claeys said he didn’t resign for personal or health reasons.
“The defense struggled and I am responsible,” he wrote on Twitter. “We couldn’t agree on solutions so the SPEED D is better with new leadership!”
Interim defensive coordinator responsibilities will belong to first-year inside linebackers coach Roc Bellantoni, who has experience at defensive coordinator from his time at Florida Atlantic University. Second-year cornerbacks coach Darcel McBath will assume the title of co-interim defensive coordinator.
After the bye week, WSU (3-2, 0-2), which needs to win at least three games in order to make a fifth consecutive bowl trip, travels to face No. 20 Arizona State (4-1, 1-1) in Tempe.
The Cougars had varying degrees of success in approximately 1½ seasons under Claeys, who was previously the head coach at Minnesota, but the defense has regressed in just about every major category this season – something that was highlighted in each of WSU’s first two Pac-12 games.
In a 67-63 upset loss to UCLA, the Cougars didn’t offer much resistance and the Bruins’ offense – underwhelming in three prior losses, and one after the WSU game – scored 50 points in 19 minutes to complete the second-biggest comeback in FBS history. Chip Kelly’s offense manufactured 28 first downs and 657 yards of total offense as UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson threw for a season- and career-high 507 passing yards.
The 67 points were the most the Cougars had given up in a game in eight seasons under Leach.
Between games, Claeys was asked if any player had made a concerted effort to be a vocal leader in the locker room or on the practice field, to which he responded, bluntly, “I have.”
A week of practice and film review didn’t yield better results, though, and WSU dropped a second straight Pac-12 contest, losing 38-13 Utah in a game that saw another opposing QB hit a season-high in passing yards. Tyler Huntley and the Utes’ passing game managed to exploit large pockets of space, and Utah’s receivers constantly beat WSUs’ defensive backs down the field, allowing the home team to roll up 334 passing yards and two touchdowns.
Afterward, Leach, who also called his team out for being “fat, dumb, happy and entitled,” criticized WSU’s defensive backs for playing “street ball” and noted, “I don’t think we listen to the call, necessarily, and I think guys just run around and do what they want to do.”
When Claeys arrived in Pullman, he vowed to maintain the style of defense that helped the Cougars thrive under former defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who’s now had stops at Ohio State and Oklahoma since leaving after the 2018 season. Claeys also promised to learn the Cougars’ terminology, which he thought would mitigate the learning curve for players.
WSU improved in Claeys’ first season, allowing only 23.3 points per game while conceding just 359.5 yards of offense per game, behind a collection of playmakers that included defensive end Logan Tago, linebacker Peyton Pelluer, nickelback Hunter Dale, safety Jalen Thompson and others. Claeys was named a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach.
Despite a handful of graduating players, and Thompson’s mid-summer departure, the Cougars still brought back a cast of returning starters, including linebacker Jahad Woods, defensive back Skyler Thomas and “Rush” Willie Taylor, while the addition of nose tackle Lamonte McDougle was supposed to cement WSU’s pass-rush.
Instead, after a pair of uninspired Pac-12 outings, the Cougars – ranked 107th nationally in total defense – were left searching for answers.
And now they’ll be on the hunt for a new defensive coordinator, too.