Sorensen: WSU secondary night & day w/ Grinch

SO HERE’S the question of the day for Washington State fans: how many times in the last few seasons did you see good coverage by the Cougar defensive backs that was undone because they never turned and looked for the football as it came down, thus allowing the receiver to make the catch?

My scientifically grounded answer to that question is this: a lot.

And it's part of the reason why WSU's secondary registered exactly one -- yes, one -- interception in the entire 2014 season.

As a former safety, as well as a high school secondary coach for many years, I can tell you that something seemingly as simple as turning your head at the right moment isn’t simple at all. It’s technique that is taught and practiced. Read the receiver’s eyes ... get your head around ... find the ball ... little things like that taught in practice can make a huge difference on game day.

Not all coaches focus on those things. It’s a little bit like quarterbacks. Some coaches are maniacs about arm angle, hip turn and footwork while others are more directed on the right read, the right progression and a quick release.

There’s only so much practice time in a week so you place your emphasis on what you consider most critical.

For me, technique in the defensive backfield is king. I was schooled on it in my formative years. And as a senior at WSU I joined with guys like Jeff Files, Nate Bradley, John West and Joe Taylor to form a truly outstanding secondary built foremost on great technique and then bolstered by great angles and great film prep. Our 1981 Cougar defense — Padilla’s Gorillas — led the nation in pass defense.

I thought of our old team two weeks ago at Albi Stadium. I was there for the Crimson and Gray Game. I watched from my favorite vantage point: the end zone. That's the view I enjoy most, because I can see the game from the same direction as the players. Blocking schemes, stunts, and coverages are easier to digest looking head on rather than from the side.

And I’ll tell you this: I liked what I saw from the Cougar defense -- especially the energy -- and I LOVED what I saw from the DBs because it’s crystal clear that defensive coordinator and secondary coach Alex Grinch is teaching technique.

This interception by Charleston White (pictured above with Sulaiman Hameed right after the INT) is one example of what I’m talking about.

The difference in the play of the Cougar DBs I saw in Spokane vs. what I saw last season screamed out at me. That’s not to say these guys are world beaters, but they’re clearly getting coached up on technique. In my opinion, that is going to be a telling -- and I'd like to think winning -- difference between the 2015 Cougar defense and the 2014 version.

The technique of your defensive backs is more critical now than ever because the high-octane offenses of today require defenses to play more nickel packages. In other words, more minutes are being played by defensive backs because their speed and cover skills help slow these modern offenses. If you’re going to put an extra DB on the field, you’re cheating yourself of the full benefit if he’s not coached up on technique. So from that standpoint alone, I give Grinch an A grade. He's done impressive work in a short period of time and I expect the growth trajectory will continue at a faster pace during August.

Here's what else I noticed at Albi: the DBs and LBs were in the correct position (most of the time anyway), playing fast, and making plays on the ball in the form of interceptions and forced fumbles.

Playing faster means that the coaches are putting a game plan in place that everyone understands, and is able to execute properly. I also saw better overall tackling.

The Cougs have a ways to go -- on both sides of the ball -- to get back to winning on a regular basis in the best conference in the country, but it looks like good things are on the horizon.

Paul Sorensen played safety for the Cougars from 1980-81, earning first-team All-America honors as a senior. He then spent two seasons in the NFL on the Bengals' and 49ers' practice squads and later played in the USFL. From 1985-98 he was the color commentator on radio broadcasts of Cougar football and has been the color analyst for Eastern Washington University broadcasts for many years since then. He also was a long-time assistant coach in the Greater Spokane League. Paul has been writing periodically for CF.C since 1999. His columns here are labeled SLAP! The acronym stands for Sorensen Looks At the Program. The word also aptly describes the way Paul played safety and the way he does color commentary: in-your-face, nothing held back.

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