WSU SPRING: A look at Dotson's journey to D

PULLMAN - Ten months ago when he arrived at Washington State, Isaac Dotson understood he had an uphill climb to play on offense for the Cougars. A standout prep quarterback, he was moved to defense less than a week into fall camp. Now, this spring, he's got the tall order of taking over the spot of NFL-bound safety Deone Bucannon. Another uphill climb for Dotson, but one he's pursuing head on.

Growing up in the suburbs of Bellevue, the second you walked into the bedroom of Dotson, the QB posters would scream out at you, he says. Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, Peyton Manning, Vince Young, the room was filled with NFL stars. And Dotson wanted his style of play to be similar to the guys on the wall.

"Those were the players I idolized," Dotson said. "Those were the ones I kind of modeled my game after. The mobile guys, you know? Okay wait, maybe not Peyton Manning, but those other three guys for sure (laugh)."

But now, Dotson idolizes someone else, Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. Dotson is now trying to model his game after a Super Bowl champion safety. Get to the ball. Be physical.

There's a very good reason for that.

Through three practices this spring, Dotson, who saw the field on special teams and backed up Bucannon in 2013, recording 10 total tackles in seven games, has been running with the first-team unit at the strong safety spot.

DURING SATURDAY'S SESSION, the 6-1, 206-pounder was aggressive with his play. He fought for position. And although the Cougs were in the second of two helmets-only practices, he showed a lot of aggressiveness out on the Martin Stadium turf, including a scrum with wide receiver River Cracraft after the two ended up crashing to the turf.

They were pulled off one another fairly quickly, but an uproar of cheers followed soon after. It was the first "fight" of the second day of practice, which coaches don't mind (as long as it doesn't go too far) since they get to see emotion from their guys.

"He's getting better physically," head man Mike Leach said of Dotson. "He's gotten stronger, faster and you know, he just needs enough reps to continue to learn the position."

"He brings physicality to our unit," defensive coordinator Mike Breske added. "He's a wiry, tall dude that has pretty good twitch and is pretty strong. We're hoping he's going to be a very physical defensive back for us."

DOTSON'S MOVE TO DEFENSE, as mentioned above, was one that he understood would most likely happen back before he verbally committed. Once in fall camp, it became clear what his best position was at the Pac-12 level.

"The fourth day I talked with (wide receivers coach) David Yost," said Dotson. "We came to the mutual agreement that I'd be able to see the field a lot earlier if I made the switch over to defense.

"Initially I was kind of bummed, but you don't really have time to sit and sulk about that kind of stuff. I knew that when I signed as an athlete, that would be a possibility. It wasn't any real shock to me and at the end of the day I'm here to do what's best for the team. That was the mindset I came to Pullman with and that's the mindset I have now."

For Breske, who enters his third spring in Pullman as the Cougar defensive coordinator, he had a much different initial reaction than Dotson on the position change.

"In fall camp Coach Leach decided to send him my way and I was pretty happy about that," Breske said. "He's a tremendous athlete, who was a very athletic high school quarterback, but we certainly wanted him on our side.

"He came over and right now he's running with the first team. He's had a couple good days, but a young man like Isaac is constantly learning, especially when he's not very familiar with the defensive side of the ball.

"There's a lot of intricacies that he didn't have to worry about as a quarterback. He's diving into it, learning the game from the defensive side of the ball and showing a lot of improvement."

THAT IMPROVEMENT IS something Dotson hopes goes at a quick pace through the 15-practice spring ball session, which is scheduled to end on Tuesday, April 29. His experience as a quarterback, he said, helped considerably this winter offseason and in the early going this spring.

As a senior coming out of Newport High in 2012, Dotson originally committed to Nevada, but flipped to WSU after a coaching change in Reno. As a QB, he had other offers from Eastern Washington, Montana, Montana State, Utah State and others. A dual threat signal caller, he amassed 1,700 total yards and 24 touchdowns for the Knights his senior season.

"It's been tough from a technique standpoint," Dotson said on the switch to safety. "I had to try and pick things up pretty fast and I had been used to drills as a quarterback all my life. From a mental aspect, though, it's cool because I could just look at everything backwards."

And that's where the edge comes in.

"I have a better understanding of what quarterbacks are thinking, so I can go back there and put myself in his shoes to think how to counteract with a play," said Dotson. "I try focusing in on what's going on with just more than one guy. That's another benefit of being a QB because I understand the route concepts, so it's easy to recognize what guys might be doing out there."

And it's also not like Dotson had to completely start over with his move to the defensive secondary.

"I played some safety at Newport my senior year and played linebacker growing up as a kid before I got to high school," he added. "I definitely know tackling and pursuit. At this level it's just the different schemes and integrating the technique with the game plan at the same time."

Breske added it's been a night and day transformation for the player listed as the No. 1 strong safety on the depth chart this spring.

"He's got to learn the defense and just become more comfortable on this side of the ball," Breske said. "He's put in the effort, though, no doubt. With Coach (Jason) Loscalzo (strength and conditioning) you don't hear anything negative about him. He's always a positive guy in the weight room who's going to do what he needs to do, and more, to make himself the best football player he can be."

And Breske wants to see the same thing from Dotson as he does from all his potential starters.

"I want to see a consistency from him from day one, to day two, to day three," Breske said. "A lot of times with young players you'll see them rise with their play, and then you'll see a dip and then you'll see a rise back up. We don't want that."

Working with Breske as his position coach has been a bonus, Dotson added.

"It's definitely been beneficial for me," Dotson said. "He knows what he's doing and he's got a very good approach. When working with him, he can break things down for you in a way where it's easy to understand. He's helped change my game. From a technique standpoint, he's helped me understand where to be on the field in certain situations."

ANOTHER HELP FOR DOTSON has been junior free safety Taylor Taliulu. The starter at the other safety spot on the field has assumed a leadership role for the young WSU secondary, including the guy next to him.

"He gets me in the film room with him and does a great job of just breaking things down for me," said Dotson. "We help each other out and share ideas. It's been really beneficial and he understands what the goals of our defense are.

"It's been cool because as everybody knows we're a pretty young secondary. In that fact we can kind of relate to each other and we're more than just teammates on the field. We're close friends as well, so it makes the communication back there a bit more natural between us. It's going to take reps, but I think we're going to be just fine."

Dotson said more than a few times he still has a lot to work on before the end of spring, and on through the summer, if he wants to hang on to his current starting role with the Cougar defense. The big thing, he said, is to try and keep calm when the ball is snapped and let the game come to him.

"I'm just trying to go out there and do my best and improve every day," he said. "I'm trying not to put a lot of pressure on myself and just go out there and play football. Obviously it's a different speed, but I think I'm catching up and coming along pretty well."

Only time will tell if Dotson turns out to be the safety that he, Breske and Leach think he can become. There's a long road ahead, and the coaches aren't asking him to be the poster boy for the defense right away.

But if there's one thing he's shown early on in his Cougar career, it's that Isaac Dotson enjoys battling that uphill climb.

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