WSU defense takes advantage of first day of contact to dominate Cougars' offense

PULLMAN — The third day of spring practice was the first to include shoulder pads, and that turned out to benefit the Washington State defense, in both seven-on-seven “coverage” drills and the full 11-on-11 team session. The players on the other side of the ball didn't fare as well, according to head coach Mike Leach.

“Every position is up for grabs. We gotta make sure everybody understands that,” said a visibly disappointed Leach after practice Tuesday at Martin Stadium.

All in all, it was great day for the WSU defense. The presence of full pads (and full hits) might have thrown the offense off a little — and the slippery, rain-soaked field didn’t help.

“I thought we did some good things,” said quarterback Luke Falk, before conceding that responsibility for the offense’s performance “starts with the quarterback.”

Leach was not so generous with his assessment.

“We’ve got to be more disciplined,” he said.

When asked how to fix the offense’s issues, the coach simply pointed to the weight room and said, “Well, that’s what we’re doing right now.”

The practice began like any other — senior kicker Eric Powell (6-foot-1, 201 pounds) showed off his powerful leg, booting in a few field goals from beyond 40 yards. Offensive line coach Clay McGuire had his players do blocking drills with a sled.

Defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Alex Grinch was telling the defense to “outphysical your opponent,” while linebackers coach Ken Wilson repeated the mantra, “Hips in, belly to belly” to the players, imploring them to make the most powerful hit possible on the ball carrier.

Redshirt freshman linebacker Erik Glueck (6-1, 232) seemed to have a little trouble performing to Wilson’s satisfaction (though he seemed to recover as the drills continued), while fellow redshirt Jahad Woods (6-0, 216) drew compliments from Wilson.

Also standing out in the tackling drill were redshirt freshman nickel Justus Rogers (6-2, 225) and junior linebacker Bridget Buckley (5-11, 215). Freshman linebacker Levi Hansen (6-0, 223) looked great reacting to snaps and bursting into the line of scrimmage. Glueck and Hansen both impressed Wilson by quickly and athletically moving around blocks in a later drill.

Sophomore defensive back Marcus Strong (5-9, 175) and redshirt freshman DB Dylan Axelson (5-10, 209) drew most of Grinch’s praise during defensive back drills, while freshman Zaire Webb (5-10, 169) and redshirt freshman D’Jimon Jones (5-11, 191) struggled, dropping a few balls during the drill.

Grinch also was effusive in commending the job junior defensive back Sean Harper (6-2, 184) did in tackling drills.

Defensive line coach Jeff Phelps led the linemen in snap drills, raising from the ground a stick with a football attached to simulate the start of a play against an offensive line of foam blocking dummies. Senior lineman Daniel Ekuale (6-3, 297) was a little slow reacting to the snap, but it was freshman defensive end Nicholas Smith (6-2, 230) who received the most attention from Phelps. Smith was having trouble getting his hands as high on his blocker’s body as Phelps would have liked.

During offensive warmups, junior receiver Tavares Martin Jr. (6-1, 183) made a dazzling catch of a pass from Falk, while sophomore running back James Williams (5-11, 192) was effective both running and catching passes from the backfield during seven-on-seven drills with sophomore quarterback Trey Tinsley (6-3, 201) under center.

Senior lineman B.J. Salmonson (6-4, 300), however, struggled in his turn at center, sending two high snaps to Tinsley that resulted in broken plays and more than a few upset offensive coaches.

The seven-on-seven drill wasn’t all bad for the offensive line, though. Junior running back Keith Harrington (5-8, 194) broke free on a few plays, most notably behind blocks from linemen Josh Watson (6-4, 285) and Keenen King (6-4, 324), both freshman.

Coach Phelps also singled out junior defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa (6-2, 255) for stuffing freshman fullback Clay Markoff (5-9, 221) at the line of scrimmage. Throughout the seven-on-seven drills, Mata’afa looked like a stud, consistently beating the offensive line and making his presence known in the backfield.

Senior linebacker Frankie Luvu (6-3, 240) also looked good against the rush, consistently reacting swiftly and correctly when a back would change direction or find a hole.

Later in seven-on-seven drills, when lined up with the defensive second team, sophomore RUSH Derek Moore (6-1, 246) and Axelson were impressive in getting to redshirt freshman quarterback Casey Brink (6-2, 201) for a sack on an option play. (It wasn’t an actual sack — despite wearing full pads, all quarterbacks continue to wear blue “no hit” jerseys for practice.)

It did look like the full pads gave an immediate advantage to the defense as redshirt freshman receiver Riley Krenz (5-10, 180) dropped a screen pass from Brink — Krenz looked like he might have been more concerned about avoiding a hit than safely bringing in the football ball.

The defense continued to shine in the team session — the full 11-on-11 portion of practice.

Lining up with the first team were Mata’afa, Ekuale, and sophomore Nnamdi Oguayo (6-3, 229) alongside senior RUSH Dylan Hanser (6-4, 231). In the secondary were Strong, junior cornerback Darrien Molton (5-10, 181), and safeties senior Robert Taylor (5-10, 183), sophomore Jalen Thompson (6-0, 190), and junior Hunter Dale (5-10, 195). The linebackers were Luvu and senior Peyton Pelluer (6-0, 228).

On the second team’s front were juniors Kingston Fernandez (6-2, 262) and Taylor Comfort (6-0, 275), along with Moore and junior Logan Tago (6-3, 245) at two RUSH positions. The linebackers were senior Nate DeRider (6-1, 226), sophomore Tristan Brock (6-0, 255), and senior Isaac Dotson (6-1, 224).

Jones, Harper, Webb, senior nickelback Kirkland Parker (6-1, 186), and senior corner Marcellus Pippins (5-10, 176) all saw time at the secondary for the twos, depending on the package.

In a theme that was consistent all day, the offense called rushing plays on much more of its snaps than would normally be expected in a Mike Leach offense.

Sophomore center Noah Osur-Myers (6-4, 307) allowed Harrington and then senior running back Gerard Wicks (6-0, 228) to get stuffed at the line of scrimmage on back-to-back Tyler Hilinksi handoffs. The O-line did a little better, however, when Williams came in and broke free along the right sideline on a pitch from Hilinski. Wicks also was impressive later on in the session, using an athletic spin move to break into the open field on a run through a hole in the middle of the line.

On one of the offense’s more memorable plays, T.J. Martin caught a pass from Hilinski over the middle after it was tipped (and very nearly picked off) by Luvu.

Overall, however, McGuire was not happy with the offensive line’s performance, chewing them out after too many running plays ended with a loss. He admonished his players that too many of them were ending up on the ground, where they can’t protect the quarterback or the rusher.

In a break from the 11-on-11 session, McGuire took his linemen and had them run one-on-one blocking drills while Taylor and Williams caught punts with the special teams unit and the offensive skills position players ran coverage drills with the secondary.

After the one-on-one blocking drills, McGuire had Brink take snaps from his first team, consisting of junior left tackle Andre Dillard (6-5, 310), senior left guard Cody O’Connell (6-9, 370), sophomore Frederick Mauigoa (6-3, 305) at center, Salmonson at right guard, and senior right tackle Cole Madison (6-5, 315).

While the first team O-line performed well against Phelps’ defensive line, when some of the second- and third-teamers subbed into the drill, the defense was able to get to Brink with ease. In particular, Kingston Fernandez continually beat Keenen King, who was lined up at right guard. Other defensive players who seemed to get to Brink effectively included Smith, Moore, and sophomore lineman Hunter Mattox (6-3, 286).

Molton, Harper, Parker, and Dale all looked great in the coverage drills, each breaking up a pass from either Falk or Hilinski, while Strong struggled to contain senior receiver C.J. Dimry (6-5, 213). DeRider also performed well, dropping into solid coverage from the linebacker position.

Once the full 11-on-11 team session started up again, the defense continued to dominate the day. While the offensive line did do a decent job of giving both Falk and Hilinski plenty of time to make throws, the secondary ensured they had very few safe targets. Strong, Molton, and Dale had especially good performances, with Strong making a big midfield hit on T.J. Martin to prevent a catch, Molton breaking up a potential touchdown pass from Falk to Martin, and Dale making a physical tackle to keep junior receiver Kyle Sweet (6-0, 192) from making it into the end zone after a catch.

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