PULLMAN — When Jaylen Watson declared for the NFL draft at the end of the 2021 regular season, Washington State’s secondary lost its most dependable cornerback and the undisputed leader of the position group.
Earlier this spring, coach Jake Dickert alluded to one of his team’s priorities: deciding Watson’s replacement for the role of No. 1 CB, an every-down defender who will match up against the Pac-12’s receiving stars.
WSU’s top returning corners rotated often last season, Dickert noted.
“They did a lot of good things, but who’s going to step up and really solidify themselves as a big-time playmaker?” Dickert asked three weeks ago.
With spring camp winding down, senior Derrick Langford Jr. has asserted himself as the front-runner. He started opposite Watson throughout the 2021 season, but his responsibilities will expand this year.
“I have really high expectations for D. Lang,” Dickert said Tuesday after practice at Rogers Field. “I call him Mr. Lang now, because he’s grown up and ready for that moment.”
Langford, checking in at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, finished eighth on the team last season with 39 tackles, had two interceptions and forced a team-high three fumbles for the turnover-minded Cougars. The Bay Area native started one of WSU’s four games in the coronavirus-truncated 2020 season and played in a reserve role the year prior after transferring in from the City College of San Francisco.
Langford has been one of the Cougar defense’s most vocal players at camp as he takes command of a CB room that includes three other contributors from the 2021 squad, all of whom are expected to be key this year.
Third-year sophomore Chau Smith-Wade showed potential as WSU’s No. 3 CB last season. Dickert said the Denver product is the Cougars’ current No. 2 on the depth chart.
“At the second corner position, Chau will flash and have great days,” Dickert said. “His movement, his ability — his lateral quickness I think is really, really special.”
Dickert named Chris Jackson the team’s most improved cornerback.
After transferring from Michigan State last spring, Jackson was WSU’s last CB in the rotation during the fall. He appeared in nine games, missing four with an injury, and totaled five tackles and a forced fumble.
“I think he’s really (raised) his ceiling,” Dickert said. “I think he’s taken the off-the-field stuff more seriously. His nutrition is great and he’s been doing really, really good.”
Senior Kaleb Ford-Dement, formerly an All-Conference USA performer at Old Dominion, gained a good deal of experience last season off the bench in his first season as a Cougar. Dickert considers Ford-Dement to be among the team’s fastest players.
“It’s a good, competitive group, and those guys know they gotta bring it each and every day,” Dickert said of the CBs.
Evaluating the group as a whole has been difficult throughout spring ball because of minor injuries, Dickert said. Langford was sidelined early in camp. Smith-Wade missed a few days in the middle and Jackson hasn’t participated over the past week.
Elsewhere in the secondary, a couple of positions are settled and one is up for grabs.
Three of WSU’s safeties graduated after last season and another transferred out of the school, depleting the Cougars’ two-deep at that spot. Both nickels are back while only one notable corner — Watson — departed. Multiple experts predict Watson will be selected midway through the NFL draft, which begins April 28.
Spokane native Armani Marsh has been “Steady Eddy” at nickel from the fall through spring, Dickert observed. Reserve Armauni Archie missed all but one game last year with an injury but is working through drills at camp while wearing a yellow, no-contact jersey.
Senior Nevada transfer Jordan Lee gives the Cougars a hard-hitting, sure tackler at strong safety. Lee earned a “Juice Player of the Day” award Tuesday after intercepting a pair of passes in team drills.
“We challenged him a little bit in film yesterday and he really responded today,” Dickert said. “He had a couple of picks early and made some big plays, had some great effort on special-teams stuff — exactly the way we want him to be.”
Sophomore walk-on Tanner Moku, a special-teamer last year, is backing up Lee and taking reps at nickel, too.
A three-man race is taking shape at free safety between junior transfer Spokane product Sam Lockett III and redshirt freshmen Adrian Shepherd and Jaden Hicks.