What we’ve learned so far this spring: Cougar defense

PULLMAN — After five spring ball practices, the competition has been elevated across all positions on the Cougar defense. But in the early going, one Washington State position grouping has yet to hit cruising altitude.

We’ll get to the defensive secondary later but first, the defensive front.

On the front three, new defensive line coach Jeff Phelps has seen plenty of effort in drills from juniors Hercules Mata'afa (6-foot-2, 255 pounds), Ngalu Tapa (6-2, 323), Kingston Fernandez (6-2, 262), and Taylor Comfort (6-0, 275), along with senior Daniel Ekuale (6-3, 297) and sophomore Nnamdi Oguayo (6-3, 229).

From this chair, the speed of Mata’afa and Oguayo have stood out most in that group when it comes to starting discussion, while Ekuale’s place on the first team feels to me a bit more tenuous. And that's in part because Fernandez continues to impress the defensive staff day after day.

“I think we’re flying around, we’re progressing, we’re getting used to coach Phelps’ philosophy on his part of the game, and it’s coming together well,” said Mata’afa of the current state of the defense.

Senior RUSH Dylan Hanser (6-4, 231) seems to be the staff’s preferred starter at his position for now, but don’t be surprised if either sophomore DE Derek Moore (6-1, 246) or junior Logan Tago (6-3, 245) — or both — come into play here.

While Hanser’s veteran savvy has served him well in the team portion of practices, Moore and especially Tago have shined against the offense, using their athleticism to put pressure the quarterback and to beat blockers in one-on-one drills. And first and foremost this spring, the Cougar staff is putting a premium on crashing the backfield and getting to the QB.

The linebacker corps has been tough for the lauded Cougar running backs to beat on the ground, with seniors Frankie Luvu (6-3, 240) and Peyton Pelluer (6-0, 228) are seeing most of the time on the first team at the WILL and MIKE, respectively (the duo is pictured above). 

Luvu has been especially good in the early going, breaking up passes in coverage and stuffing ball carriers at the line of scrimmage.

Another pair of senior 'backers, MIKE Nate DeRider (6-1, 226) and WILL Isaac Dotson (6-1, 224) have also looked good in the snaps they've gotten.

There's a long way to go between here and there but it’s not hard to envision the four seniors rotating in and out of the lineup in the fall. And that means running backs need to keep their head on a swivel.

“We’ve got a couple of fast players that just come with a chip on their shoulder, and they’re trying to knock your head off,” said junior running back Keith Harrington (5-foot-8, 194 pounds) of the hard-hitting linebackers.

The secondary, the specialty of defensive coordinator and DB coach Alex Grinch, has looked inconsistent as best in the early going.

One day they'll enjoy success in shutting down the Cougar Air Raid -- then they are getting sliced up on both short and deep throws the next.

Naturally, the secondary packages have changed quite a bit over the first five days, and nothing is yet settled for Grinch’s coverage players. 

A pair of speedy safeties — senior FS Robert Taylor (5-10, 183) and sophomore SS Jalen Thompson (6-0, 190) — have looked very impressive from my vantage point, however, and are making the strongest cases to anchor the secondary through the first five days of spring ball.

RELATED: What we’ve learned so far this spring from WSU offense

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