The Cougs, including 'chief commander' on defense, look ready for season opener after Wednesday practice

PULLMAN – Wednesday’s practice marked the final padded practice that the Cougs will have before Washington State’s season opener against Eastern Washington on Saturday (5 p.m., Pac-12 Network). During Wednesday's session, my eyes kept being drawn time and time again to the chief commander on D.

The chief commander on D (or the quarterback of the defense) by definition in Alex Grinch's system is the strong safety. He calls the formation strength and coverages on the field before every play -- because he has the best view of the field and best view of the offenses’ formation.

The strong safety has to be a player that knows the defense extremely well and knows how to communicate with volume and efficiency. Those responsibilities do not often lend themselves to a true freshman.

But the Coug to take on that big role is none other than true freshman safety Jalen Thompson (pictured above).

Communication-wise, the defense is on a new level right now, and Thompson is a big reason why.

Thompson, who enrolled early out of high school at WSU in January, is a surprisingly exceptional athlete at this point in his football career. His footwork and technique are far beyond  most players his age -- and are right there with the top players on the Cougar defense.

He also fits the bill for a vocal guy that understands Grinch’s schemes. He’s authoritative and loud on the practice field and he’s very quick to pick up adjustments.

Thompson is also excellent in coverage. On Wednesday he intercepted Luke Falk during the short amount of reps that have the 1’s have in going against one another. He had another acrobatic interception against the scout team in the defense period.

He has asserted himself as one of the Cougs' top defensive backs this offseason, but it's likely that teams will try to attack him because of his inexperience. He will definitely be tested this weekend when he has to face EWU star wideout Cooper Kupp. It could be a matchup to watch for, just as is it will be for any Cougar defender who goes against Kupp.

FROM MY CHAIR, the focus on both sides of the ball is clearly where it needs to be right now. Each unit looked sharp in Wednesday's session while they worked on applying some final touches before the season kicks off. And that got me thinking.

It's probably better said by Mike Leach – but last year was last year. The Cougs aren't thinking about the Portland State debacle in last year's opener, and it shows in their attitude and body language on the field.  They're not thinking about anything that has to do with last season.  To my eye, this 2016 Washington State football team looks ready to win a lot of games this season.

Winning is a mentality, you see it in different programs across the nation. Some teams know how to win, they always seem to find a way to get it done. Other teams aren’t so familiar with success and often just scratch at the surface before collapsing in demise. But this Cougar team has been a lot. They’ve seen the ups and downs, they've come through in the clutch, they know where they want to be at the end of the day.

Maybe nine wins makes you work that much harder in the offseason. Maybe nine wins helps you focus more when you’re feeling tired. Maybe nine wins teaches you that winning isn’t easy.

Whatever the motive – these Cougs have put in high quality work throughout the entire offseason and are now ready to show the college football world exactly what they’re made of.

THE DEFENSIVE LINE has also been impressive these past two practice days. Since game week began on Tuesday, the Cougar defense has been facing more of a balanced playbook that involves different offensive formations, with the D-line being  put to the test.

They have showed well this week, playing fast and without hesitation -- and that's a really good indicator they understand their gaps and assignments against EWU.

In my mind, Daniel Ekuale might be the most valuable defensive linemen because of how versatile he is -- call him Mr. Plug and Play. At 6-3 and 290 pounds, he can truly play any spot across the line –on the edge, at the 5 and 3 shade spots, and he can play nose tackle too.

After practice, defensive line coach Joe Salave’a talked to me about having guys like Ekuale and Hercules Mata'afa that can play multiple spots.

"You have to be able to work when you truly don’t have a feel for your numbers... (we)  gotta have some moving parts… and it’s not for everybody, but those guys seem to handle the work load. So the more they can handle the better we can be,” said Salave'a.

Not having a rock-solid feel for the numbers makes me think that the coaches are still unsure about their depth behind the starting bunch. Either way, having played the last two years at Wazzu and seeing how Salave’a and Grinch coach, I have complete faith they'll make the right calls and decisions.

WEDNESDAY's PRACTICE was also the last time before Saturday that the special team units will rep at full speed.

The field goal unit, coming off a very solid year, has the chance to be even better in '16.  Indeed, I’m expecting kicker Erik Powell will have his name added to the Groza Award watch list by the end of the year. He has really improved this offseason and has been nailing kicks from 50-plus yards, and with room to spare.

The kickoff, punt, punt-return, and kickoff-return units should also be much better this year. We saw some of it in the latter half of last season.  But the Cougs' 2016 roster is stacked with more athletic talent from top to bottom than coach Leach has ever had at Wazzu  and that should translate to the special teams units.

Now, it's up to special teams coach Eric Mele to make his final calls on which players will put it on the line and where.

THAT IT'S TAKEN me this long to mention Gabe Marks is a healthy indicator of where the Cougs stand right now. Marks has had a lot of productive practices in his time at Wazzu – almost too many to count. But Wednesday's was especially big.

Marks seemed to have his hands on the ball almost every other play.  No doubt, being the competitor that he is, Marks loved that. I would imagine that with the season less than 72 hours away – Marks will be pushing himself to take his game to a very high level on Saturday.

Meanwhile, starter Tavares Martin and rising newcomer Dezmon Patmon are also pushing themselves right now at the X.  Taking Wednesday's practice, plus all that have come before it, into account I can see a position battle brewing all season long over who gets more snaps at the X. 

Patmon is a true freshman, but he is a big, strong bodied guy that doesn’t get pushed around very much. His size (6-4, 207) is overwhelming for corners and he brings down a lot of tough catches.

Martin, on the other hand, is more of a natural athlete and has explosive playmaking ability, but his light frame can be a cause for concern at times. Both guys are very good receivers in the system right now, but I think that one of them will truly emerge as the go-to guy at X at some point.

Overall, the team looks right where they want to be – and it's now it's just about go time. From where I sit, they are prepared, they are trained, and they are looking primed for Saturday.

RELATED STORY: No expanded beer sales for Saturday at WSU

Cougfan Top Stories