WSU has nine returning starters back on D, losing safety Shalom Luani and NT Robert Barber to graduation. Back in 2015, WSU also had nine returning starters. That was Alex Grinch's first season as the Cougs' defensive coordinator and scoring defense dropped from 38.6 ppg the year before to 27.7 ppg. This past season, WSU improved again on that number, albeit slightly to 26.4 ppg.
The question headed into 2017 is if the Cougar D, with all those starters back, can not only decrease that number but by a good amount.
Notable losses: Safety Shalom Luani, NT Robert Barber, DB Charleston White, Nickel Parker Henry, CB Treshon Broughton, LB Paris Taylor, Nickel Colton Teglovic.
Top returnees: DE Hercules Mata'afa (pictured above), DT Daniel Ekuale, DT Garrett McBroom, NT Ngalu Tapa, DE Derek Moore, RUSH Logan Tago, RUSH Dylan Hanser, DL Nnamdi Oguayo, LB Peyton Pelluer, LB Isaac Dotson, LB Frankie Luvu, Safety Jalen Thompson, CB Darrien Molton, CB Marcellus Pippins, DB Robert Taylor, Nickel Kirkland Parker, LB Nate DeRider, DT Kingston Fernandez,
Up-and-Comers/Ones to watch: DB D'Jimon Jones, DB Marcus Strong, DB Sean Harper, DB Isaiah Love, DB Zaire Webb, LB Jahad Woods, DB Deion Singleton, DB Hunter Dale, Nickel Justus Rogers, LB Chima Onyeukwu, RUSH Mason Vinyard, DB Skyler Thomas, DL Hunter Mattox, DL Danny Bender, DL Lyric Bartley, DL T.J. Fehoko. Note: Except for those who enrolled in January, members of the 2017 recruiting class are generally not included in this preview, there are too many unknowns about who might play and who might redshirt in 2017 until they arrive to WSU and start competing in fall camp.
What to look for in 2017:
WSU and Grinch are moving away from the traditional big-bodied d-tackles/nose tackles up front. The Cougs are instead going smaller and more athletic -- and across the d-line. One thing that will continue in ’17, pre-snap movement up front on defense.
On paper at the three down lineman spots, returning starters Mata'afa, Ekuale and McBroom figure to be joined by Tapa. But the shift towards athleticism and quickness opens the door for a number of others to earn more turns this spring and in fall camp.
While Mata'afa is a virtual starting lock, there's another factor at play up front in 2017 when it comes to d-linemen earning starting jobs and playing time: the Cougs have a new d-line coach in Jeff Phelps.
Phelps told CF.C he was exceedingly comfortable with the athletic direction WSU is going on the d-line, and he came across on the phone as a coach who greatly stresses technique and fundamentals. How fast the d-linemen assimilate Phelps' teachings will play a very big part in WSU’s overall defensive success in '17.
At linebacker, Ken Wilson will have his most veteran group at MIKE and WIL since coming to WSU in 2013. Not only do both starters return in Pelluer and Dotson, Luvu and DeRider are also seniors. Outside linebackers coach Roy Manning, who coaches the RUSH and nickel spots, has a mix of experience and promising youthful talent at both spots. Nickel figures to be a major focus in spring ball and fall camp. Last season, Luani started nine games at nickel.
And given how the defense looked without him, replacing Luani's production will be paramount, be it through personnel and/or scheme. WSU does however have starting experience returning in the secondary in safeties Thompson and Taylor, and corners Molton and Pippins. And Strong and Jones are among those expected to have an increased impact in ’17.
Among Wazzu's chief areas of emphasis for the third straight season on defense: takeaways. As this CF.C story notes, Grinch equates 24 takeaways with nine wins. And that’s precisely what happened in 2015. Last year, WSU had 23 takeaways and finished 8-5.
Some players of course have one positional home but at every level of the defense, Washington State also has versatile players who can line up at multiple positions. Add it up and, despite nine returning starters, the spring could feature a large volume of players getting reps and at varying spots. You can’t rule out further positional moves during the season either.
Three keys on defense in 2017:
1. Significant improvement in d-line penetration and disruption.
Note: WSU had but 20 sacks in 13 games last season (10th in Pac-12, 108th nationally). The NCAA doesn't track hurries but WSU didn't distinguish itself there either last season.
2. More playmakers in the secondary, leading to more takeaways and pass break ups.
3. Get off the field.
A stat to improve: WSU ranked No. 8 in the Pac-12 in opponent third-down conversions in 2016, last among the conference bowl teams.
Final thought: With the number of returning starters, WSU defensively should be better in 2017. The question is how much better. So much is dependent on the defensive line and the unit was simply too inconsistent last year and faltered significantly down the stretch. Phelps definitely has some pieces to work with, but the players have to do their part too. Spring ball is always keenly important for every position group on D, but it shapes up as absolutely huge for the Cougar d-line and its new coach.