Vineyard & Parker take down Johnson-Mack (CF.C/Snook)

Sorensen Looks at the Program: Speed on D and Phelps' focus on line technique stood out in Albi

SPOKANE — The biggest takeaway for me at Washington State’s Crimson and Gray game on Saturday was the speed on defense. The other big one was the impact Jeff Phelps already is having on the defensive line.

Let's talk speed first. The Cougar staff has recruited and coached up guys who are collectively faster on defense than any group on the Palouse since at least 2005, when future NFL players Husain Abdullah, Eric Frampton, Tyron Brackenridge, Ropati Pituitoa and Mkristo Bruce were suiting up alongside scrappers like Scott Davis, Will Derting and Adam Braidwood.

The speed on this 2017 edition of the Cougs applies to all position groups, too. The linebackers, secondary and line are all fast. Bottom line, the athleticism I'm seeing is just plain elevated.

Of course, that speed along the line comes with a trade off: the Cougars are not big up front. Speed is key to offsetting the lack of bulk.

Junior Nick Begg, the 6-5, 260-pound former tight end/slot receiver, was one guy who really surprised me Saturday. He was wearing jersey No. 89 so might have gotten some subliminal Travis Long mojo from my viewpoint, but I really liked his footwork, handwork and aggression out of the tackle position.

While sacks in a scrimmage are a little smoke-and-mirrors in that the QB is considered down once he’s touched, Daniel Ekuale posted two on Saturday and reaffirmed my belief that he and current No. 1 Garrett McBroom will battle up to the opener on Sept. 2 for the starting job at nose tackle (though Ngalu Tapa can't be counted out either).

The Cougar D includes 10 seniors in the two-deeps and that veteran depth, especially at linebacker, is going to be huge this season.

"Production is the name of the game, and we need a more productive defensive unit,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said after the game.

WSU was in the middle of the Pac-12 pack last season in total defense, scoring defense, red zone defense and turnovers, and near the bottom in sacks.

To get to the next level of production, the turnover total needs to climb into the top third of the conference while the sack totals — and tackles for loss generally — need to elevate in a major, major way. For perspective, consider that the Cougs posted 20 sacks last season — 50 percent less than league leaders Washington and Utah turned in.

HERE'S ANOTHER BIG TAKEAWAY FROM SATURDAY: new d-line coach Jeff Phelps is doing a great job of coaching up his guys with technique against the run and in the pass rush.

It’s very clear from watching on Saturday that the former Minnesota assistant coach has laser-like focus making sure his troops know what gap to take, how to defeat a double team, and how to set the edge for containment. Those were notable weak spots for the Cougar line last season. I think Phelps can be a difference maker, especially with a line banking on speed rather than size.

Building depth and playing with great energy at this position is going to be paramount to the success of the WSU defense in 2017. There’s room for improvement, obviously, but I like the direction Phelps is steering things.

THE BIGGEST CONCERN I HAVE WITH the defense is the ability to tackle in space. The LBs and DBs need to do better. I saw way too many yards being picked up by backs and receivers after initial contact. This brought back forgettable memories from last season’s Colorado, Washington and Minnesota games.

On the positive side, I did see several pass plays where the receivers had the ball in their hands and Cougar defenders ripped it out for an incompletion. As an old safety, PBUs — pass break ups — truly warm my heart.

One guy I really like in the secondary is junior Hunter Dale. He had four tackles, a couple of break ups and he set the edge very nicely. I also think newcomers Sean Harper and Zaire Webb and sophomore Marcus Strong show significant potential.

ON A LIGHTER NOTE, SATURDAY WAS just generally a great day to be a Cougar in Spokane. The mood at Albi Stadium was festive, temperatures hovered around 65 degrees, Glenn Johnson was in midseason form as he boomed out the action over the PA, and the autograph session at the end of it all was a scene of pure joy.

The way my day started set the tone. I had breakfast at Morty’s with CF.C co-founder Greg Witter and his 88-year-old dad, Stan. Greg’s encyclopedic knowledge of Cougar history clearly comes naturally. Papa Witter can give you the play-by-play of every WSU-Gonzaga football game from 1934-41. He vividly recalls being in the stands when UCLA All-American Kenny Washington — who would become the first African American sign an NFL contract — came to Pullman in 1938.  A one-time TV newscaster, he called the WSU-San Jose State game in 1964 when the regular guy was out; he considers Clancy Williams, the star of that '64 team, one of the greatest of the Palouse greats.

And did you know the Washington Redskins used to hold their summer training camp at Spokane’s Mission Park before the war? Wonderful guy and oh the stories we shared!

At Albi, I reconnected with many old friends, teammates, and colleagues. Like Scott and Kim Pelluer, who were in town to watch son Peyton, who is entering his senior season for the Cougs. Scott was a truly outstanding Cougar linebacker himself back in the day and my mentor when I arrived on campus.

I also had nice chat with Gabe Marks, who is gearing up for the draft next week; River Cracraft, who is working hard to get that knee back in shape so he can get his career to the next level; and Jedzilla, Jed Collins, who is making hay in his post-NFL career as a financial adviser with Brighton Jones in Seattle.

Of course, what Cougar function is complete without a great chat with my hero, the legendary Throwin’ Samoan, Jack Thompson. He’s the ultimate ambassador for Cougar athletics and WSU.

And talk about coming full circle …

Dennis Erickson, who I got to know well when he was WSU’s coach and I was calling the color on radio, was at Albi on Saturday too. I say full circle because the first game I ever played in a Cougar uniform was in Albi, in 1980, against a San Jose State team whose offensive coordinator was a guy named Dennis Erickson. We lost 31-27. Jack Elway, an old Cougar player and coach (and John’s dad) was the Spartans’ head man in those days.

On to 2017! Five straight home games to open the season portends well for a great start.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Paul Sorensen played safety for the Cougars from 1980-81, earning first-team All-America honors as a senior. He then spent two seasons in the NFL on the Bengals' and 49ers' practice squads and later played in the USFL. From 1985-98 he was the color commentator on radio broadcasts of Cougar football and has been the color analyst for Eastern Washington University broadcasts for many years since then. He also was a long-time assistant coach in the Greater Spokane League. Paul has been writing periodically for CF.C since 1999. His columns here are labeled SLAP! The acronym stands for Sorensen Looks At the Program. The word also aptly describes the way Paul played safety and the way he does color commentary: in-your-face, nothing held back.  

PAUL SORENSEN & BOB ROBERTSON


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