DEPTH CHART: SS: R-Sr. Xavier Hicks (6-0, 211); So. Tyree Toomer (5-11, 194); R-Fr. Jay Matthews (6-1, 207); Fr. Jamal Atofau (5-10, 185) | FS: Jr. Chima Nwachukwu (5-11, 201); R-So. Eric Block (6-0, 196); R-Fr. LeAndre Daniels (6-1, 203); R-Fr. Kyle McCartney (6-0, 195); Fr. Casey Locker (5-11, 175)
PLAYERS LOST: Alfonso Jackson (Started six games at safety [one other start at corner] with 24 tackles on the season.)
INJURIES: Matthews and Daniels both sat out the spring rehabbing shoulder injuries. They'll each be limited to start training camp but they will suit up and participate on Sunday, and could be cracking pads again before long.
OVERVIEW: The Cougs have veteran leadership and quality play in the two starters, (32 combined career starts), and the first option off the bench made a mark as a true freshman. The Cougars do not, however, run all that deep in proven experience at the two safety spots.
Hicks is solid in run support and he's one of the hardest DB hitters in the Pac-10 over the middle. Guys who really bring the lumber sometimes load up too much, they end up actually missing tackles and/or not wrapping up -- but Hicks plays smart. He was second in stops last year for the Cougs.
He also has a penchant for the big-time plays that help win games. In the '07 Apple Cup, a Hicks hit caused the fumble and turnover with UW driving in a tie game, and with time winding down. Earlier that season, Hicks decaffeinated a UCLA receiver with another clean hit that put the WR on the inactive shelf, and the Cougs beat a Bruins team tied for the conference lead.
More recently, Hicks decleated a Cougar WR in the final scrimmage this spring. After practice, people were still talking about the sound of the hit. Hicks, after practice, went over to make sure his teammate was okay.
Nwachukwu, too, has an advanced understanding of the game and he's versatile -- he can play corner as well. As the '08 season wore on, Nwachukwu got better and better at his new safety spot and by the season ender, he was playing like a veteran.
Nwachukwu has naturally good read and react skills, and he's not shy about coming up fast and strong against the run. Indeed, lost in other '08 Apple Cup heroics, Nwachukwu, as any who used the slo-motion feature on their DVR can attest, might well have saved the game for WSU in the first overtime. A Husky running back looked to have the goal line if not for Nwachukwu's hard hitting, sure-fire tackle on third and goal.
He's also taken on an emerging leadership role this offseason.
Toomer is intriguing. He started four games last season as a walk-up type safety specializing in run support when the Cougs went to their 3-3-5. And while he was a freshman learning on the job and at times was lost in the shuffle, he also produced some highlight reel stops and showed good improvement.
How the Cougs might use him this year remains to be seen, whether as a true safety or again as a loaded-strong type with an emphasis on stopping the run. Whatever the role(s), he is expected to have taken upward strides both on the field and in the weight room this offseason, with a potentially bigger impact that his frosh campaign.
Block remains a collegiate mystery. Plagued by injury and illness his first two years in Pullman, he's a bundle of athleticism the Cougs have not yet been able to tap. If he can stay healthy, if he's assimilated enough at the position and scheme over two years where he hasn't always been able to practice, he could be a significant contributor -- he has that kind of athletic skill.
Daniels and Matthews are likewise, for the most part, unproven. Each redshirted last year and did some good things, and also showed inconsistency. Alas, both missed out on what would have been a crucial learning stage this spring -- a time when they would have gotten a ton of reps. But they will be given every opportunity to earn playing time in rotation in fall camp. The question is, are they ready, this year, to play in the Pac-10?
Atofau has a chance to earn instant playing time. He's physical, and the type of lunch-bucket player that meshes well in a Cougar secondary. Like any freshman, he still has plenty to learn and improve upon before he earns that time. Atofau excelled most in high school, where passes are fewer, in run support and may play a similar walk-down safety role at WSU, a la Toomer in '08. He also has coverage skills that can be built upon.
Locker might be, physically, a year away from being ready to fully compete on Saturday afternoons. But he's athletic as all get out and has a tremendous football IQ. He's also, despite his size, a hard-nosed, tough football player, it would be a mistake to automatically assume he won't be ready as soon as this year. As with all rookies, much will be determined over the next 25 days or so in fall camp for him.
AN OPTIMIST WOULD SAY: Hicks and Nwachukwu might not be as well known amongst national media as other Pac-10 safeties because the Cougars haven't gone bowling recently -- but they can play with anyone. Hicks is both a sure and ferocious tackler whom receivers will try a dig route against only once, and Nwachukwu is an athletic, thinking man's safety with some pop of his own who will frustrate offenses. Toomer will take another step forward, and this will finally be the year Coug fans see what Block can do,and it could be plenty. Daniels is underrated potential waiting to be realized and Matthews has size, they'll contribute this year in rotation, while learning, and without too much collateral damage. And the same can be said for rookies Atofau and Locker.
A PESSIMIST WOULD SAY: The Cougs get very thin after the first three safeties. And learning on the job at a position where a premium is placed on read and react skills most often means the opposing band gets to play their fight song a couple more times. There's a lot to like about Hicks and Nwachukwu, and Toomer showed good promise last year, But Toomer still needs more seasoning and if the Cougs are forced to rely a lot on the group behind him, there will be plenty of growing pains -- those lessons learned will help WSU next year and beyond, but a price will need to be paid in '09.
STAR PLAYER: tie - Xavier Hicks and Chima Nwachukwu.
UNIT WEAKNESS: Playing experience beyond the top three.
UNIT STRENGTH: Savvy, Athleticism, Strength.
WULFF: "We have a good mix of veterans and youth at the safety position. We have three players who have a good deal of experience. (Daniels and Matthews) need to fit into the depth. And then Eric Block is the wildcard. He needs to step up and be healthy to give us another capable player in there."
If you missed any of our other CF.C positional previews, click to:
WSU FALL CAMP KICKOFF: Quarterbacks