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Roy Manning sizes up WSU's spring battles at rush and nickel, says D'Jimon Jones one to watch

ROY MANNING makes no secret about it. “I actually have a chip on my shoulder,” the Washington State assistant coach says about the Cougars’ 20 sacks in 2016.

That was the third-fewest in the Pac-12 — less than half of what league sack leader Utah posted and exactly half the number of takedowns as the Pac-12's second-most-prolific QB tormentors, Washington.

Manning oversees WSU’s rush linebackers and nickels. So he takes the sacking proficiency personally.

The spring season, which commences tomorrow, will be in large part about "improving and fine turning" to step up the havoc in the backfield, Manning tells CF.C.

“I’ve been watching film every day — we all have as a staff — really trying to do a good job of self-scouting to make the necessary improvements,” he said.

Sacks, of course, are just part of the equation. As anyone knows who has watched Manning up close at a Cougar practice, he is a high priest of the virtues of generating turnovers.

That will be a huge focus this spring as well. “That’s every day, every practice. Every day we’ll be harping on that,” he said.

Here’s his rundown on the two positions he oversees:

RUSH LB:

Veterans Dylan Hanser (6-4, 240 senior) and Logan Tago (6-3, 235 junior) lead the way. “They split time last year and got a lot of snaps so it’s a great situation to have them both back,” Manning said.

And, yes, Tago’s off-field legal hurdles will not preclude him from being a full participant this spring.

Also keep an eye this spring on some others, Manning said, including long, athletic and fast second-year freshman Mason Vineyard (6-5, 225) and fourth-year junior Greg Hoyd (6-1, 230).

Nnamdi Oguayo, a rush end last season, is now at defensive end and it looks like Derek Moore, who Manning sees as the second-coming of Hecules Mata’afa, will stay put at DE.

Manning’s No. 1 goal for the unit?

“Hands down, it’s improving our pass rush. We’ve got to get more productivity in getting to the quarterback … not just sacks but affecting the quarterback. That will be a huge onus all spring for me to get these guys oiled up and a lot better at pass rush. That’s what this defense needs. And if you look at any great defense, they’ve got some studs out there on the edge affecting that quarterback.”

He said Hanser is one of the fastest guys, and perhaps THE fastest, on the team. “He runs like a defensive back,” Manning said. “Logan is quick and naturally strong, with a thicker body. I expect these guys to get most of the playing time at rush end.”

NICKEL:

“We lost all three of our guys (Shalom Luani, Parker Henry, Colton Teglovic) so there will be some new faces at that spot and we have to build depth there,” said Manning.

Second-year freshman D’Jimon Jones (5-11, 180, Federal Way) and JC transfer Sean Harper (6-2, 175, Hartwell, Ga.) figure to be contenders, with fifth-year senior Kirkland Parker (6-1, 185, Houston) in the mix as well.

The position could be a revolving door of faces as different, multi-dimensional athletes are given a look, said Manning.

Jones (pictured above) “has a lot of range, athletic ability and looks like he’s putting on weight to fit that mold … He was moving really, really well in the offseason workouts,” Manning noted.

Harper possesses good size and is very mature, Manning said. “You’ll probably see him at both nickel and safety … We may move guys from the secondary or from a different spot (to get the best 11 on field). And that’s going to be fun, it’s a new challenge.”

Manning’s No. 1 goal for the nickels this spring?

“I have high expectations for that group. But they’re new and I just want them to learn the defense, learn all the techniques and nuances. To play fast you have to understand those things … Spring is about finding out who can be a guy.”

IN TERMS OF THE OVERALL DEFENSE, Manning said, “We’ve got a great, great group of young guys — a lot of guys who redshirted last year (on defense overall). Marcus Strong (DB), that kid’s got a huge upside as a super-fast, quick cornerback.  At linebacker, Jahad Woods is a really athletic guy who is working to get into that rotation and Justus Rogers is another linebacker — smart as a whip like Isaac Dotson.  You’re kind of waiting to see what they’ll do (on the field) and there are always guys that surprise you.

“We’re excited about our young guys. They’re growing up in a culture of winning and that has long-term benefits. Two successful years now, the mind set has changed, expectations are higher. It’s a good time for Cougar football.”

 Manning said Dotson, Peyton Pelluer and Frankie Luvu — all linebackers — will be the leaders and anchors of the defense in 2017. “All are seniors, all really good football players — tough linebackers in the middle of the field. They will be the heart and soul of our defense. Ken Wilson has done a great job with those guys.”

NOTABLE:

The Cougars return nine of their top 10 tacklers from last season. The NFL-bound Luani -- who was No. 3 last season behind Pelluer and Darrien Molton -- is the lone loss.


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