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Breaking down our two-deeps on WSU defense

PULLMAN — Headed into Saturday’s spring game, it feels like the Cougars’ d-line is taking shape, while Alex Grinch’s secondary has multiple players competing for a shot at the top of the depth chart. Here's our breakdown of the two-deeps on D.

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1. Hercules Mata’afa, junior (6-2, 255)
2. Kingston Fernandez, junior (6-2, 262)

Mata’afa looks to be one of the most talented Cougars on the roster — offense, defense, or otherwise — and nowhere is that talent more effective than when the junior is pass rushing from the edge. There’s a reason why, to a man, all the WSU offensive linemen that I’ve spoken with cite Mata’afa as the hardest to block on the team.

“We’re switching some guys around at different positions,” d-line coach Jeff Phelps said recently. “The ends will need to know the tackle spot and the tackles will need to know the nose spot.”

Nose Tackle
1. Garrett McBroom, senior (6-3, 280, pictured above)
2. Daniel Ekuale, senior (6-3, 297)

With junior Ngalu Tapa (6-2, 323) missing recent practices to deal with academic issues, the door is wide open for someone to make a play for the starting job. So far to my eye it looks like McBroom is in the lead, but fellow senior Ekuale might have something to say about that before springtime is over.

“He’s done an outstanding job there,” Phelps said of McBroom, adding that the tight competition among the top six guys on the d-line is a “good problem to have.”

Defensive Tackle
1. Nnamdi Oguayo, sophomore (6-3, 229)
2. Nick Begg, junior (6-5, 260)

This is an equally tight race between Oguayo’s speed and Begg’s size. But look for Begg to make a case for the starting job next Saturday — for the past few practices he’s been moving as well as anyone on the defense.

RUSH
1. Logan Tago, junior (6-3 245)
2. Derek Moore, sophomore (6-1, 246) / Dylan Hanser, junior (6-4, 240)

In the hybrid not-quite-lineman-not-quite-linebacker position WSU likes to employ, it’s been Tago who has stood out the most so far in spring ball from this chair. He moves just a little faster than everyone else, and he uses his speedy reactions to make big plays on the ball. Moore has also performed well, but doesn’t alter the movements of the offensive players the way Tago can.

Also look for second-year freshman Jahad Woods (6-0, 216) to make a run at this spot or one of the two linebacker spots. Woods has been hustling his way into snaps all spring.

WILL
1. Isaac Dotson, senior (6-1, 224)
2. Frankie Luvu, senior (6-3, 240)

I have this spot almost as a tie, though Dotson has been getting the majority of his snaps with the defensive first team much of the spring.

MIKE
1. Peyton Pelluer, senior (6-0, 228)
2. Nate DeRider, senior (6-1, 226)

Both seniors have been moving well against the run and reacting swiftly to pass plays. Pelluer is just harder to block.

NICKEL
1. Kirkland Parker, senior (6-1, 186)
2. Justus Rogers, second-year freshman (6-2, 255)

Both Parker and Rogers have looked good in short coverage routes and make hard hits on ball carriers. And just by watching the practices, I would say Rogers is the more explosive player. Still, Parker’s experience gets him the nod here.

Free Safety
1. Robert Taylor, senior (5-10, 183)
2. D’Jimon Jones, second-year freshman (5-11, 191)

Jones has gotten snaps all over the backfield, but it appears that backing up Taylor, who has a vice grip on the starting spot here, might be the most logical landing spot for the hard-hitting second-year freshman – though nickel remains a distinct possibility.

Cornerback
1. Darrien Molton, sophomore (5-10, 175)
2. Sean Harper, junior (6-2, 184)
3. Marcus Strong, sophomore (5-9, 175)
4. Marcellus Pippins, senior (5-10, 176)
5. Isaiah Love, freshman (6-0, 174)

Corner might be the most hotly contested position on the entire team, and it wouldn’t shock me to see this list in a completely different order as early as next week.  WSU is fully stocked with good-to-very-good defensive backs (although as Grinch noted on Saturday, the Cougs have some injuries they’re contending with here.  Look for true freshman Zaire Webb (5-10, 169) or recently repurposed wideout Grant Porter (6-0, 184) to climb up as well — but no one as yet has emerged as a star at the position.

Strong Safety
1. Jalen Thompson, sophomore (6-0, 190)
2. Hunter Dale, junior (5-10, 195)

Thompson is the clear starter but Hunter has offered some evidence he could reliably start at this position if needed (and Grinch does keep a few three-safety packages up his sleeve).  Thompson also gets the nod here because he’s made more plays this spring. Both have been reliable and aware on defense, but Thompson has been more likely to make a big hit or a tip on the ball to spur a run from the Cougar defense.

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