The Cougars might have found some depth at defensive tackle; also, there's potential in the secondary. Punter Zach Charme has left, but WSU will be fine with Kyle Sweet and Erik Powell, Mike Leach says

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PULLMAN – Developing depth on the defensive line was a point of emphasis for Washington State going into spring practice, and as the Cougars near the midway point of their spring season, a rotation is starting to take shape under new defensive line coach Jeff Phelps.

With Ngalu Tapa out because – per Mike Leach – he’s “diligently working on his academics,” the Cougars have seen the emergence of a surprising defensive tackle candidate – redshirt junior Kingston Fernandez.

Fernandez (6-foot-2, 262 pounds) played in six games last season, almost exclusively on special teams. But he’s blossomed at tackle this offseason, said Phelps, who replaced Joe Salave’a as defensive line coach in January.

Fifth-year senior Dan Ekuale played both tackle and end last season, and has now moved permanently to the tackle spot where he’s expected to start in the fall.

“Daniel will be in the middle, and behind him right now is Kingston Fernandez. He’s really had a great spring. He’s been a big surprise through the early part of spring, so we’re pleased with what he’s doing,” Phelps said.

Ekuale anchors a first unit defensive line in between Hercules Mata’afa and Nnamdi Oguayo, and Fernandez, Derek Moore and Garrett McBroom have been taking second team reps. Moore played end last season as a true freshman, but is also learning the tackle position to give the Cougars some versatility.

“Right now, we’ve got a solid six, and even in that, you’ve got a guy like Nick Begg, and Taylor Comfort and Tristan Brock who are learning new positions and it’s going really well,” Phelps,” But we’re adding depth to the defensive line.

Finding answers in the defensive backfield

The fiercest competition on defense this spring is the ongoing battle for spots in the defensive secondary.

At the moment, sophomore Marcus Strong appears to have pulled ahead of senior Marcellus Pippins for the starting right cornerback position across from Darrien Molton.

Junior Hunter Dale has played mostly special teams to this point, but he’s leading the competition for the nickelback position occupied last year by Parker Henry.

Dale and Molton combined to save a touchdown in the team period of Thursday’s practice, when they corralled receiver Easop Winston as he tried to come down a ball in the end zone, and Molton knocked the ball away.

Dale and former Federal Way quarterback D’Jimon Jones have both taken reps at nickel, but neither has shown enough consistency to be considered a true frontrunner.

“There’s guys who will flash one day and another guy the next day,” Leach said of his defensive backs. “I do think D’Jimon has done some good things, and Hunter Dale is playing better than he has been. Overall as a unit, there’s a certain amount of speed, and guys getting in a rhythm.”

Junior college transfer Sean Harper has been working with the twos at strong safety, while former Bellevue quarterback Justus Rogers is working with the twos at middle linebacker.

Punting duties will be split

Punter Zach Charme saw little action last season after the Cougars discovered receiver Kyle Sweet’s rugby punting talents, and he has since left the team.

Consequently, the Cougars will likely split punting duties between Sweet and senior placekicker Erik Powell, who has a unique left-footed rugby punt to match Sweet’s abilities on the other side, and can also hit enough hang time and depth to sky punt it should WSU choose to do so.