In Alex Grinch’s second season as defensive coordinator last season, Washington State’s defense got better in several statistical categories, including rushing yards allowed, total yards allowed, and turnover margin.
But as WSU begins preparations for spring ball to open Grinch’s third campaign on the Palouse, the defensive coordinator has one message for his defense: “’Better’ is not good enough anymore.”
Regardless of everything that went right in the Cougars’ 8-4 2016 season that included a seven-game Pac-12 win streak, one major flaw caught Grinch’s attention: his defense’s inability to finish plays behind the line of scrimmage.
The Cougars finished 2016 with 20 sacks and 72 tackles-for-loss – a significant step back from the 33 sacks and 102 tackles-for-loss they amassed in Grinch’s first year, good for No. 8 nationally in TFLs, and 30th in sacks.
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Their national rankings after last season: 108th in sacks, and 78th in TFLs. And while Grinch allows for the fact that statistics never tell the whole story, he also points out, “It’s difficult to be a good statistical defense if you’re not making negative (yardage) plays.”
“We’ve put a major emphasis on finishing the plays behind the line of scrimmage,” Grinch said this week. “If you sack the quarterback, now maybe it’s third-and-extra long instead of third-and-10.
“Being a better finishing football team is critical for us in taking that jump and saying that we’re a lot of a better defense after 15 practices.”
As the Cougars begin spring ball on March 23, here’s a look at the personnel they have returning.
In this quest for WSU to wreak more havoc at the line of scrimmage, much scrutiny will fall on the defensive line, from which, Grinch said, “there was a lack of production across the board.”
“Our ability to finish plays (there) was our Achilles heel – our inability to finish opponents and get TFLs and sacks,” Grinch said. “It’s a lot easier to call a dropback pass if you have confidence in our lack of ability to bring a passer down.”
Hercules Mata’afa’s team-best 13.5 TFL were good for fifth-best in the Pac-12, and he also led the team with five sacks. He’ll return for his junior season along with senior Dan Ekuale (2.5 TFL, 1 sack) and Garrett McBroom (1 sack, 1 TFL).
Nnamdi Oguayo toggled between rush linebacker and defensive end last season, but is now back with the D-line, Grinch says. The 6-foot-3, 227-pound third-year sophomore had three TFL and four sacks, and has the makings of a promising edge rusher.
It’ll be interesting to watch how things shake out under new defensive line coach Jeff Phelps, who’s known for his attention to detail and emphasis on technique.
Waiting in the wings:
Derek Moore was a pleasant surprise in his true freshman season, featuring in all 13 games, and earning a good chunk of playing time. At 6-2, 319 pounds, Ngalu Tapa is the closest thing the Cougars have to a true nose tackle, but he has yet to stand out at the position. Also look for 6-foot-2, 271-pound junior Kingston Fernandez to try and get in the regular rotation.
With three-year starter Peyton Pelluer (93 tackles) returning for his senior year at the mike linebacker spot and safety-turned-linebacker Isaac Dotson (64 tackles) anchoring the will linebacker position, the Cougars’ linebacking corps will be the strength of the defense in 2017.
Frankie Luvu and Nate DeRider also proved to be capable backups at the inside linebacker spots last season.
At rush linebacker, Dylan Hanser (3.5 TFL) goes into spring as the incumbent. He split time with Logan Tago last season, but Tago remains suspended indefinitely.
Waiting in the wings:
ILB: Chima Onyeukwu redshirted in 2016 after transferring to WSU from Contra Costa College, while Jahad Woods also redshirted as a freshman but will hope to compete at inside linebacker in his second year. Also look out for former Bellevue quarterback Justus Rogers, who switched to defense last fall and is learning the inside linebacker positions.
Rush LB: Mason Vinyard redshirted last season while rehabbing from an injury sustained in high school, and could get a good look at the rush spot where the Cougars could desperately use some depth.
With Parker Henry and Shalom Luani gone, the nickel position “will be a revolving door this spring,” Grinch said.
Jalen Thompson started every game at strong safety as a true freshman in 2016 and will either reprise that role, or, perhaps, move to nickel, which he played in certain defensive packages for WSU last year.
Robert Taylor distinguished himself at free safety whenever the Cougars opted to move Luani to nickel, and will return in that role.
Now a junior, Darrien Molton was WSU’s second-leading tackler (71 tackles) at cornerback in 2016, while senior Marcellus Pippins (5 pass breakups) will likely anchor the right cornerback spot across from Molton.
Waiting in the wings:
Nickel: Senior Kirkland Parker backed up Henry and Luani at nickel last year and junior Hunter Dale, who played mostly on special teams last year, will get a look at nickel this spring. With his athletic talents, former Federal Way quarterback D’Jimon Jones will also get ample opportunity to win the job.
Safety: Watch out for Sean Harper, a junior college transfer from Holmes (Miss.) Community College who signed with WSU out of high school in 2015, but didn’t have the grades to qualify. He impressed Grinch enough that the coach kept in touch through the next two years in hope of getting him to stick with WSU.
Cornerback: Marcus Strong played in six games as a true freshman and got some reps at cornerback toward the end of last season. Freshmen early enrollees Zaire Webb (Jacksonville, Fla.) and Isaiah Love ( West Covina, Calif.) will also look to get in the mix.