Injuries ravaged the Cougars last season giving several players time to get into games.
LEWISTON, Idaho – Ken Wilson relays the same message to his inside linebackers every year. Maybe they’ll find some real value in his words and decide to put them into motion. Maybe they won’t.
They hear it nonetheless.
“We’ve got to train you like you’re going to play,” Wilson preaches. “I tell them that all the time. I’m like, you may be on one special team, but we’ve got to train you like you’re going to play.”
Perhaps those words haven’t resonated with every player Wilson has inherited in his six years on Mike Leach’s staff at Washington State, but there’s no doubt the inside-linebackers coach got through to a specific trio of redshirt freshmen in 2017.
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When injuries pummeled the inside-linebacking corps, taking Peyton Pelluer from the Cougars in week three against Oregon State and both Isaac Dotson and Nate DeRider in week six against Oregon, Wilson had the unenviable job of replacing three seniors with 112 games of experience. Only Dotson returned to the Cougars, and it didn’t happen until the middle of November.
So Wilson’s lesson was put to the test. Train like you’re going to play – because you just might.
“That gives you a little credibility in the room when that actually happens,” Wilson said.
Fortunately, he had a bunch of eager rookies in the on-deck circle.
By the season’s end, redshirt freshman Jahad Woods was a Pac-12 All-Freshman team choice by SB Nation, a 10-game starter and the Cougars’ second-leading tackler with 64 takedowns. Even with three years of eligibility in front of Woods, it’s unlikely he’ll ever make a play more meaningful than the fourth-quarter strip-sack on Sam Darnold that allowed the Cougars to stun No. 5 USC in Martin Stadium.
Justus Rogers, the fill-in for Dotson, made four starts, registered 47 tackles, had 6.5 tackles for loss and posted three sacks. And then there was Dillon Sherman, the third redshirt freshman of the group, who tallied 23 tackles, one sack and one fumble recovery.
The moment never felt too big for any of the three.
“I think they’re all real confident kids and they come out and compete every day and I don’t think the game’s too big for any of them,” Wilson said. “And we didn’t know that was going to happen until we had to put them out there. We knew they were good players and good athletes, but we didn’t know about their mental makeup until they got out there. But they all have plenty of confidence and all compete and they all want to start.”
Woods, Rogers and Sherman all return to a notably strong and deep linebacking corps in 2018. Perhaps inadvertently deep, too.
All three would’ve seen the field some last season, but Woods and Rogers couldn’t have forecasted that they’d be returning starters as redshirt sophomores, and Sherman didn’t envision scaling the depth chart from third-stringer to primary backup.
“Experience is everything,” Sherman said. “Coming back with some time out on the field last year is big. Almost everything kind of slows down in a way, makes it a lot easier to read plays.”
Even with the wealth of talent Wilson brings back at inside linebacker, he finds himself stressing many of the same lessons.
“I tell them when I go in at the start of fall camp, I love all of you,” he said. “I love every guy in the room, but I’m going to play the best players for each situation, so that’s their job. It’s in their court, and the best guys will be out there playing. I feel like they saw that last year and we had a lot of guys get nicked up and the drop-off was not very big and we won a lot of football games.”
Woods, Rogers and Sherman aren’t guaranteed jobs this season. Actually, there’s a good chance just one will be starting Sept. 1 at Wyoming.
The NCAA ruled to give Pelluer his senior season back, leaving only the “Will” position open. So while Rogers, redshirt freshman Fa’avae Fa’avae and junior-college transfer Kendrick Catis battle for second-string duties at Pelluer’s “Mike” spot, Woods, Sherman and Dominick Silvels will contest for the week-one start at “Will.”
“Probably right now it would be a coin flip between the three of them,” Wilson said.