WSU Defensive Backs: Fall Camp Preview

FANS OF CONTROLLED CHAOS should enjoy what's on tap for the defensive backfield when Washington State’s fall camp kicks off on Saturday -- everyone figures to get a long look.

The Cougs return three starters in CB Charleston White (6-0, 185, pictured above), S Taylor Taliulu (6-0, 205) and S Darius Lemora (6-0, 196). In addition, S Sulaiman Hameed (5-10, 190) had three starts last season and CB Marcellus Pippins (5-10, 170) started the final two games.

But the only one of that group not a sophomore is Taliulu, a fourth-year safety. And with WSU’s secondary play poor last season, it's not just coach speak to say every job is up for grabs under new defensive coordinator/secondary coach Alex Grinch.

The capper is that the Cougs will employ five defensive backs in their base defense this year, having added the Nickel in place of the SAM.

What needed to happen most did in the spring – Grinch had his defensive backs turning their heads and looking for the football. He was drilling them constantly on technique.

They didn’t come out of the spring as world beaters and there will likely be some struggles this season in the secondary. But they should be better collectively as a group than they were last season.

At the nickel, Lemora heads into fall camp as the starter. Behind him on the post-spring depth chart were co-No. 2’s Colton Teglovic (6-0, 195) and Parker Henry (5-11, 207). Teglovic, a walk on, is coming off his best spring and could earn some turns depending on how fall camp goes.

Lemora started 10 games last season at strong safety but as the nickel back, he’ll be asked to both cover and handle more run responsibilities. The nickel back doesn’t need to be big, but he does have to be a sure tackler, explosive and a guy who can pick off some passes. Lemora is the No. 1 nickel headed into the start of fall ball but there could be movement aplenty here in fall camp.

Highly touted JUCO transfer Shalom Luani (6-0, 201) will be expected to challenge either at the nickel or at one of the safety spots. But Luani is making a big step up in class from San Francisco CC to the Pac-12 and a starting gig is hardly assured. Luani is fast and hits like a truck, but there’s a lot more to being a great safety and the position requires more time and experience than does corner.

Kameron Powell (6-0, 202) is a true freshman and it’s asking a lot for a safety to be ready to play his first year in the Pac-12. Powell does have excellent read and react skills and could make a case for early playing time, though pre-fall camp Luani seems most likely for ’15.

We’re assuming the nickel will be a safety-type but if WSU tries out some corners here in camp, the list could be a lengthy one indeed. Note: Mike Leach said this spring Deion Singleton will sit out the ’15 season (assumedly as a partial qualifier) and incoming CB Sean Harper looks to be an academic casualty.

At one corner spot, Pippins is backed up by Pat Porter (5-10, 170). Porter got two starts last season but struggled against USC and ASU. Charleston White (6-0, 185) holds down the other starting job with David Bucannon the backup listed on the depth chart. Again, a significant influx of Cougar rookies could change things during camp.

JUCO transfers Treshon Broughton (6-1, 175) and Kirkland Parker (6-1, 185) could push Pippins and White. True freshman Darrien Molton (5-10, 170) is probably a redshirt candidate but he could put himself into the conversation with a strong early showing.

Pippins in limited time last year before he got dinged up showed an ability to stick to receivers, but he needed to turn his head. White had a great game in the win over Utah, the ’15 key will be for him to play at that ability consistently.

Both should show the most improvement they’ll have as collegians this season, after their first year of playing on Saturdays in ’14.

At strong safety, Taliulu started 10 games this past season but he’s expected to be pushed in fall camp by Sulaiman Hameed (5-10, 190). Hameed came on as the season progressed but missed his final two games to injury as a true freshman.

At free safety, Isaac Dotson (6-1, 215) has quietly assumed the top spot. Dotson was making a case last year before being bitten by the injury bug – he missed the final 10 games. Cougar fans still don’t know what WSU has in Dotson but a healthy 2015 campaign could change that. Walk on Willie Roach (6-1, 196) was listed as the No. 2 on the post-spring depth chart.

Luani and Powell could be in play at both safety spots in fall camp. Hunter Dale is expected to redshirt but there are always surprises in fall camp once newcomers go against the competition.

There is Pac-12 talent, speed and athleticism in Washington State’s defensive backfield. But it lacks polish and experience.

Grinch has his work cut out for him in 2015 to turn the unit into one of the league's better defensive backfields. But there should be noticeable improvement from ’14 and it's reasonable to expect it to at least be serviceable. And by the end of the season, with so many underclassmen in the fold, there should be a healthy dose of optimism for what’s to come.

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