Countdown to Spring: Defensive Backs Preview

THE COUGAR DEFENSIVE BACKS, in looking ahead to the 2012 campaign, are the most experienced, deepest position on the Washington State defense. Except when they're not.

And offseason surgeries and rehab will significantly limit the cornerback position this spring. Mike Breske told CF.C recently he expects to have four, just four, healthy bodies at corner for spring drills. He declined to name the injured or the injuries, citing Mike Leach's policy on keeping injury news under wraps.

But in taking a wider view of 2012, the good news is this: all three cornerbacks who started last season – Damante Horton, Daniel Simmons and Nolan Washington – return this season.

Plus, all three safeties who started last season – Deone Bucannon, Casey Locker and Tyree Toomer – also return.

Horton comes into the spring as arguably the most consistent corner. He had a team-high four picks and the most tackles (31) among the CBs. Simmons looked destined for greatness two years ago but had a quieter season in 2011. Still, he had 22 unassisted tackles in 10 games. Washington tied Bucannon for the team lead with four pass breakups.

Spencer Waseem could be one to watch, assuming he's one of the four who is ambulatory this spring. The hard truth is that the Cougs have not shown the ability to put their corners on an island and turn loose their blitzers. Is Waseem the type of corner who can do that, and is he ready to do so after spending last year redshirting with an injury?

Or are Horton, Simmons and Washington about to play at a stickier level beginning in 2012?

Tracy Clark, and Brandon Golden are also in the mix at corner. Could one of both of them emerge? Both saw action in all 12 games this past season.

AT SAFETY, Bucannon didn't make quite as much noise as he did his breakout true freshman season -- but he still turned in a solid year and the second most tackles on the team (80).

Locker is a big hitter, although any benefits were lost on more than one occasion when he drew flags. Locker has a lot of speed and good ball skills but simply put, he has to wrap up and stop going for the knockout blow -- he's a marked man and the officials are going to flag him every time. Still, and despite that, Locker was fifth on the team in tackles despite only one start.

Toomer started all 12 games and was third on the team with 60 tackles.

One of the big defensive backfield questions this spring is if the Cougs will keep those three in rotation. Toomer drew criticism from the fans at times last year but WSU's safety coverage, from top to bottom, was an issue. And he did better work against the run that he was given credit for. Might the Cougs move Toomer into more of a linebacker-type, run support role? That's unknown, but Toomer did some fine work when rolled up on the line earlier in his career.

Anthony Carpenter could also be one to watch here after posting 16 tackles in 2011. Tyrone Duckett is also in the mix.

THE BOTTOM LINE is there is room for substantial improvement throughout the secondary -- WSU ranked No. 111 out of 120 teams in pass efficiency defense last year. It tends to get lost in the shuffle but some of last year's secondary deficit was most assuredly due to the Cougars' poor pass rush. But not all.

And while not all of the defensive backs were healthy enough to participate, Mike Breske told CF.C earlier there was some "loafing" during the Midnight Maneuvers in the defensive backs (and linebackers) groups. Never a good sign.

Breske has also said this spring is not about slotting the depth chart but of development, of trying to get the Cougs to play faster.

Still, a corner-turning performance by a safety or CB will always go a long ways towards solidifying his role for both fall camp and the season ahead. And opportunity awaits in the secondary this spring, starting on Thursday.

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