Washington State opens spring ball with a wealth of options at linebacker, and a surprisingly fast developing group of defensive linemen. But, the situation in the secondary is a little more concerning, says new defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys.
Not since Mike Leach’s first spring in 2012 has Washington State opened a spring football season with question marks at so many different spots.
Between the graduation of 19 seniors who were in the two-deep, Hercules Mata’afa’s early departure for the NFL, the exits of six assistant coaches, and, most significantly, the suicide death of junior quarterback Tyler Hilinski, WSU begins its 2018 spring football practice schedule on Thursday with a host of new faces at every position.
This feels more like a remake of a popular movie with a new cast and crew than a sequel to a blockbuster with the main actors reprising their roles.
From quarterback Luke Falk and his lieutenants, running back Jamal Morrow, offensive tackle Cole Madison and linebacker Isaac Dotson, to defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, much beloved strength coach Jason Loscalzo and running backs coach Jim Mastro, the Cougars have lost a lot of leadership and experience since their Holiday Bowl defeat to Michigan State in December.
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Without many of the key actors who helped resurrect the Cougars and usher in one of the more successful eras in WSU football history, this spring is all about new beginnings and, perhaps, the birth of a new era.
Here’s the first of a two-part series examining who the Cougars have coming back, and what holes they’ll have to fill, first looking at the defense.
OUT — Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, rush linebackers coach Roy Manning
IN — Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, safeties coach Kendrick Shaver, cornerbacks coach Darcel McBath, outside linebackers and special teams coach Matt Brock.
Claeys declared, shortly after he was hired, that he will learn WSU’s existing defensive terminology instead of introducing a whole new system to the Cougars, and that’s exactly what he has done. That’s also why he says this spring will be as much of a trial run for him as it is for the players.
“I’m gonna screw it up at some point,” Claeys says. “If I call something the old way we (at Minnesota) used to call it, I think Ken and those guys will be able to signal it in there. That’s the good thing about spring ball, it’s a learning deal, and the whole key is to get better each day.”
Claeys’ defense isn’t that different from what WSU ran under Grinch. Like Grinch, he will use three defensive linemen up front and add a rush linebacker on the line. He will also maintain a nickelback position. The difference, however, is that Claeys wants his nickelback to be adept at man coverage.
“They haven’t been asked to play a lot of man in the past, and we’ve got to figure out how much man they can handle,” Claeys said. “The more man (coverage) they can handle, the more we will be able to disguise things.”
Claeys will stick with the quarters based defensive scheme WSU had under Grinch, but said down the road, he will emphasize recruiting cornerbacks proficient in man coverage.
“If you can play man on the edges, you can do whatever you want in the box. It just makes it a lot easier for everybody,” Claeys said.
OUT — DT Hercules Mata’afa (left early for NFL), DT Daniel Ekuale (graduated), DT Garrett McBroom (graduated)
Who to watch for?
- DL Nick Begg, rs-sr, 6-5, 264 pounds
- DL Kingston Fernandez, rs-sr, 6-2, 276 pounds
- DL Nnamdi Oguayo, rs-jr, 6-3, 237 pounds
- DL Dallas Hobbs, rs-fr, 6-6, 243 pounds
- DL Pono Lolohea, jr, 6-3, 310 pounds
The departures of Mata’afa, Ekuale and McBroom left WSU lacking in experience on the defensive line, but surprisingly, Claeys says he’s not too worried about the position after watching the returning talent in Midnight Maneuvers.
“We’ll be young up front but those guys have done a good job and gained some weight,” Claeys said.
It will be difficult to duplicate Mata’afa’s production — the All-American had 22 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks last season. But the addition of junior college transfer and early enrollee Lolohea has bolstered WSU’s depth at defensive tackle.
OUT — LB Isaac Dotson (graduated), LB Nate DeRider (graduated), RUSH Dylan Hanser (graduated), RUSH Frankie Luvu (graduated)
Who to watch for?
- LB Peyton Pelluer, grad, 6-0, 225 pounds
- LB Jahad Woods, rs-so, 6-0, 214 pounds
- LB Justus Rogers, rs-so, 6-0, 225 pounds
- LB Dillon Sherman, rs-so, 6-1, 220 pounds
- LB Cole Dubots, rs-fr, 6-1, 192 pounds
- RUSH Chima Onyeukwu, rs-sr, 6-2, 220 pounds
- RUSH Derek Moore, jr, 6-1, 248 pounds
- RUSH Logan Tago, sr, 6-3, 247 pounds
- RUSH Mason Vinyard, rs-so, 6-5, 237 pounds
Pelluer’s return as a sixth-year senior graduate student will be important for this young team. But losing him last year to a broken foot opened the door for Woods, Rogers and Sherman to get valuable playing time. Woods, especially, grew quickly through the season, finishing as WSU’s second-leading tackler, with 64 stops, including 11 tackles-for-loss.
At the rush linebacker position, WSU has some good options to replace the productive Frankie Luvu (12 TFL, 6.5 sacks). Tago (24 tackles, 3 TFL) is the front runner, but watch out for Moore, who moved from the defensive line to rush backer this spring. Mason Vinyard and Chima Onyeukwu also flashed potential last season.
OUT — S Robert Taylor (graduated), CB Marcellus Pippins (graduated), NICKEL Kirkland Parker (graduated)
Who to watch for?
- CB Sean Harper, sr, 6-2, 186 pounds
- CB Darrien Molton, sr, 5-10, 185 pounds
- CB Marcus Strong, jr, 5-9, 177 pounds
- S Jalen Thompson, jr, 6-0, 191 pounds
- S Skyler Thomas, rs-so, 5-9, 186 pounds
- NICKEL Hunter Dale, sr, 5-10, 190 pounds
Claeys’ biggest concern entering spring ball is the secondary, specifically, at safety.
“The main thing is figuring out everybody in the secondary,” Claeys said. “We need to get that depth chart and see where we’re at depth-wise at safety. The rest of the positions there’s enough bodies.”
Thompson, who led the Cougs with 73 tackles last year, is WSU’s best, and only game-proven safety. Harper is versatile enough that he toggled between safety and cornerback last season, and will likely start the spring at cornerback, Claeys said.
The dismissal of sophomore Josh Talbott for a violation of team rules also adds to the lack of bodies at safety. This bleeds into the nickelback spot because Claeys wants his nickel to behave more like a safety than a linebacker. Dale (46 tackles, 8 TFL) will get first crack at reprising his role as starting nickelback, but WSU needs to find depth there because his main backup, Kirkland Parker, is gone.