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2017 WSU Football Preview: SpeedD looks to take another step forward

Does speed beat size? We’re about to find out.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

This is the latest in our series of stories previewing the 2017 Washington State Cougars football season. For previous installments, click here.

The Washington State Cougars will field a defense this season, as they have in previous seasons. However, sources tell CougCenter they’ll attempt to limit opposing offenses from scoring points with fewer Shalom Luanis and very few large, run-plugging linemen.

Problematic, yes. But likely not devastating.

We can all agree that replicating Luani’s production at safety and nickel just isn’t going to happen. And losing nose tackles Robert Barber and Ngalu Tapa makes you quiver a little when looking ahead (I know, one at a time) to games against Stanford and USC.

So where does WSU make up for that lost production? Hercules Mata’afa exists, which is a good thing up front, but some new names are going to have to emerge to repeat last year’s success at the line of scrimmage, given the losses. And there are still question marks in the secondary, which you already knew after many years of visual abuse.

So, let’s see if we can pinpoint where this version of the WSU defense will stack up.

Defensive Line

NCAA Football: California at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

2017 Defensive Line

Name Year Height/Weight
Name Year Height/Weight
Daniel Ekuale RS Senior 6-3/305
Garrett McBroom RS Senior 6-3/281
Hercules Mata'afa RS Junior 6-2/252
Kingston Fernandez RS Junior 6-2/276
Taylor Comfort RS Junior 6-0/277
Nick Begg RS Junior 6-5/264
Preston Hendry Junior 6-5/234
Nnamdi Oguayo RS Sophomore 6-3/237
Hunter Mattox RS Sophomore 6-3/285
Dallas Hobbs Freshman 6-6/243
Will Rodgers III Freshman 6-5/227
Christian Mejia Freshman 6-3/223

Ah, yes—the defensive line. If you haven’t heard by now, they’re too small and they don’t have a nose tackle. Yes, I’m pointing at you. And no, you’re definitely not wrong.

Certainly, new defensive line coach Jeff Phelps has his work cut out for him, but they return the bulk of their production from a season ago and Mata’afa should make his job easier. The nose tackle issue is what it is — though a healthy Daniel Ekuale, who bulked up to 305 pounds this offseason, is absolutely serviceable at nose. If he’s hurt? Yikes.

I tried really hard not to turn this space into 250 words about Nnamdi Oguayo. Really, though, I don’t know how more people aren’t talking about this kid. In limited snaps last year he was second on the team in sacks (4) and ninth in tackles (39). The kid is special.

As is Derek Moore, who should see plenty of run as they deploy a bunch of non-traditional defensive fronts. You’d like to see a little more depth, but Logan Tago’s move to the line is something to watch. With the amount of speed they have, they should be able to create pressure on the quarterback, which was non-existent last year, to the tune of 19 sacks, 16 of which came in six games.

Linebacker & Nickel

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Minnesota vs Washington State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

2017 Linebackers & Nickels

Name Year Height/Weight
Name Year Height/Weight
Peyton Pelluer RS Senior 6-0/225
Nate DeRider RS Senior 6-1/231
Kirkland Parker RS Senior 6-1/190
Isaac Dotson RS Senior 6-1/232
Frankie Luvu Senior 6-3/235
Dylan Hanser Senior 6-4/236
Chima Onyeukwu RS Junior 6-2/220
Greg Hoyd III RS Junior 6-1/228
Logan Tago Junior 6-3/247
Hunter Dale Junior 5-10/190
Dymund Richardson Sophomore 6-3/216
Derek Moore Sophomore 6-1/248
Jahad Woods RS Freshman 6-0/214
Mason Vinyard RS Freshman 6-5/237
Justus Rogers RS Freshman 6-2/225
Willie Taylor III Freshman 6-4/221
Fa'avae Fa'avae Freshman 6-0/207
Cole Dubots Freshman 6-1/192
Dominick Silvels Freshman 6-3/219

It seems like no one is really talking about the continuity at linebacker this season, which is probably a good thing. We like to talk about the nice new shiny things, but Roy Manning and Ken Wilson have done an admirable job with this experienced group.

Seniors Peyton Pelluer (MIKE), Isaac Dotson (WILL), Frankie Luvu (RUSH), Dylan Hanser (RUSH) and Nate DeRider (MIKE) each return with plenty of young guns waiting their chance. Redshirt junior Chima Onyeukwu should also see time at RUSH this season.

The most important battle here is at nickelback where Kirkland Parker and Hunter Dale have yet to distance themselves. Dale likely has the upper hand, but both will see meaningful snaps at one of the most important and versatile positions on the field.

A lot depends on how nickelback shakes out and the level of play WSU gets there, but this group appears to be the strength of the defense with Montana State 9 days away.

Cornerbacks

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Minnesota vs Washington State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

2017 Cornerbacks

Name Year Height/Weight
Name Year Height/Weight
Marcellus Pippins Senior 5-10/178
Darrien Molton Junior 5-10/185
Marcus Strong Sophomore 5-9/177
Grant Porter RS Freshman 6-0/192
George Hicks Freshman 6-0/179
Josh Talbott Freshman 5-10/179
Isaiah Love Freshman 6-0/182

And that brings us to the secondary, where we never really know what to expect, and it’s no different entering 2017. WSU returns both starting cornerbacks, though there’s plenty of speculation as to who is going to play come the season opener.

Marcellus Pippins, a senior, is battling sophomore Marcus Strong, though Pippins will likely get the first crack. Meanwhile, Darrien Molton has locked down the right corner. It appears that the coaches really like what they’ve seen out of true freshman George Hicks, too.

While experienced, cornerback still likely won’t be a position of strength, so they’ll only go as far as the front seven’s pass rush goes.

Safeties

NCAA Football: UCLA at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

2017 Safeties

Name Year Height/Weight
Name Year Height/Weight
Robert Taylor Senior 5-10/186
Sean Harper Jr. Junior 6-2/186
Deion Singleton RS Sophomore 6-2/191
Jalen Thompson Sophomore 6-0/191
Skyler Thomas RS Freshman 5-9/186
Zaire Webb Freshman 5-10/170

Dare I try to convince you that this is going to be a position of strength? Robert Taylor and Jalen Thompson are entrenched as the free and strong safeties, respectively. And that’s a good thing.

As mentioned earlier, no one is replicating Luani’s production, but Taylor has a knack for the ball and Thompson, who started all 13 games last season, appears improved. However — and this, again, is the case for every secondary — like the cornerbacks, they’re going to have to rely on the pass rush to be successful. They’re a middle-of-the-conference tandem that will have their lapses, but should be decent in the long run.

Redshirt freshman Skyler Thomas and JUCO transfer Sean Harper Jr. will provide depth.

Conclusion

The WSU defense certainly won’t dominate in any facet — they were 44th in Rushing S&P+, 103rd in passing S&P+, 74th in Standard Downs S&P+ and 83rd in Passing Downs S&P+ a year ago — and entering year three of the Alex Grinch era, it’ll likely be a lot of the same.

They return the majority of their production from the front seven and they have enough experience in the secondary that you can probably expect something similar to the bendy, opportunistic defense you saw out of this group a year ago, which forced 23 takeaways.

Of course, that all changes for the better if the pass rush can get home consistently, but I worry about them size-wise against bigger teams. They’ll be a middle of the road defense, and that’s fine with WSU being able to control the ball for the most part.

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