Three Cougs singled out by new defensive line coach Jeff Phelps in the early going this spring

PULLMAN — Two days of spring isn't nearly enough time to offer a full evaluation but new Washington State defensive line coach Jeff Phelps had no problem rattling off the names of three Cougars who have already caught his eye.

Fifth-year senior Daniel Ekuale at 6-3, 297 pounds is the second-heaviest defensive lineman on the team and “seems to be continually consistent,” said Phelps, before complimenting what’s he’s seen so far from the player who emerged as a rising star last season, third-year junior lineman Hercules Mata'afa (6-2, 255).

The third player Phelps mentioned hasn't grabbed much of the limelight up until this point during his WSU career but that might be about to change: fourth-year junior Kingston Fernandez (pictured above in 2016).

"(Fernandez) is really stepping up to the plate ... he’s making some plays," said Phelps of the 6-2, 262-pounder.

The main goal this spring for Phelps is to get the D-line to where its consistently putting effective pressure on the quarterback --  without needing to pull anyone in from coverage.

“You really shouldn’t (have to blitz very often),” he said. “We should be able to put pressure on the quarterback. And the great teams, I think if you go down and look, they were able to put pressure on the quarterback without having to blitz all the time."

And if the Cougs aren't getting there and generating pressure with their d-line?

“If we’re not doing that then we may have to add another person into the mix,” said Phelps, suggesting that the defensive coaching staff isn’t going to stick with something if it doesn’t work. For now, however, three down linemen plus the RUSH remains the plan up front.

“As a D-Line coach, I want us to be able to handle that,” said Phelps. “If we can put that pressure on the quarterback — that’s the big thing for the spring, is getting that quarterback pressure — I think we’ll be A-okay.”

As to how to accomplish that in the Pac-12, for Phelps it all comes down to simple fundamentals.

“If you’re a gap-penetrating team, you've gotta keep your shoulders down and you've gotta fire off the ball,” said Phelps.

Diving into the process further, Phelps explained that when a referee places the ball before the snap, “we wanna take all the ball with our hand, and when the center comes and gets the ball — nine times out of 10 — he actually lifts it up, which creates more space, cause the ball’s more vertical, so we can scoot up even further.”

It’s a simple principle — the pass rushers want to start every down with as little distance as possible between them and the quarterback. But for Phelps, no detail is too trivial when it comes to gaining an advantage.

“So far, so good,” he said about how well the linemen are learning these techniques. “They’re doing some of the things we’re asking them to do, and as a coach that’s what you’re looking for and we’ll continue to build and get better.”

For the coach, however, the most important thing for the players to remember is how to have fun playing football.

“it’s a positive feel out here with the guys — they love football, we’re flying around, we’re having some fun, so it’s great,” said Phelps.

Meanwhile, barely into his first year as the Cougars’ defensive line coach, Jeff Phelps seems to be quite happy with his new home after spending the past six seasons as Minnesota's defensive line coach.

“I really love Pullman because it’s such a close, tight-knit family type of atmosphere,” said Phelps.

RELATED: Phelps' interesting path to WSU

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