Thinking about Cougs’ new nickel back look

IN CONSIDERING Washington State's move this spring to add a nickel back in place of the SAM linebacker in their base defense, we came across a surprising statistic from this past season.

Moving to a nickel back package provides advantages in defending spread offenses. A potential drawback is potentially giving up a size and strength in the box against the run. But defending the run wasn’t the Cougs’ problem last season.

College football has become ever more about the explosive plays over the last 10 years. So how did the Cougar defense do last season in allowing explosive runs? Most would probably guess they did poorly. That’s not the case.

The Cougs were in the top 30 nationally in allowing explosive runs of 10-plus and 20-plus yards. Indeed, WSU tied for 21st nationally in allowing 10-plus yard runs and t-28th nationally in allowing 20-plus hashes.

They were abysmal, however, in allowing explosive pass plays of 10-plus and 20-plus yards (ranked 108th, 125th, respectively). And therein lies the Cougs' 2015 season on defense.

This spring, with a new defensive coordinator in Alex Grinch, the Cougs added the nickel back to their base and took out the SAM. In defending the pass, and going against spread offenses, you now have an extra defensive back out in coverage rather than a linebacker.

It also allows you to get into more blitz packages and to potentially get to the QB quicker. The speed of a nickel back vs. a SAM should allow more occasions to get part way around the blocker by a half-step or more. That half-step is what often makes all the difference on any given play.

You should also be faster on defense in general and able to cover more space, particularly sideline to sideline. The key, then, is to be able to tackle well in space.

Some linebackers tackle extremely well “in the phone booth” but in space, they can’t quite get to the spot. They wind up arm tackling, and can’t get their whole body out there. One poor angle, one missed tackle is all it takes to send the whole thing crashing down.

A sure-tackling nickel back (or one who can at least squarely stand a guy up for a beat to allow they pursuit to catch up) can solve that.

Is Darius Lemora (pictured above) the answer at nickel back for the Cougs in 2015? He was in the spring.

Junior college transfer Shalom Luani when he arrives in the summer could also be a candidate here – if he isn’t ticketed for one of the safety spots.

Kameron Powell and Hunter Dale could be headed for redshirt seasons but you never really know about a true freshman until he straps on the pads in fall camp. Deone Bucannon was seen as a near-certain redshirt candidate when he arrived in Pullman. Within weeks he was starting.

Colton Teglovic (6-0, 193) doesn’t have the physical attributes of Lemora but the fourth-year junior walk on plays smart and made the quick, correct reads this spring as the No. 2 nickel behind Lemora.

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