The Washington State Cougars are without two of their vocal and playmaking leaders on defense from 2018 — one by graduation, the other by illegal supplements.
The loss of Jalen Thompson because of his use of a banned substance this summer was a blow to the WSU secondary and the defense as a whole. Replacing a guy like Thompson with little time before the season isn’t ideal, but WSU is left with no choice.
In the trenches, the Cougs suddenly have all sorts of options on the defensive line. They also return experience at the linebacker and rush positions. The biggest question mark is in the secondary, where the Cougs need to quickly replace Thompson’s spot, and where other position shuffles have taken place. On the bright side, this uncertainty has made for some good competition during the preseason.
WSU was +8 in turnover margin last season, good for second in the Pac-12. The Alex Grinch-style defense didn’t leave with him, as defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys did a marvelous job of sustaining the team’s defensive scheme, for the most part.
This year, we’re giving our comfort level for each unit and a player or two to keep an eye on. Here’s our comfort level scale:
- 1 (think Loren Langley lining up a field goal)
- 5 (think WSU vs. Arizona’s 2018 defense)
For reference, WSU’s defense ranked no. 59 in S&P+ last season (click on the “Wazzu” tab).
2019 Defensive Line
|Nnamdi Oguayo||RS Senior||6'3, 260 lbs.|
|Karson Block||RS Senior||6'2, 253 lbs.|
|Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei||Senior||6'3, 270 lbs.|
|Will Rodgers III||Junior||6'4, 255 lbs.|
|Jesus Echevarria||RS Sophomore||6'2, 285 lbs.|
|Christian Mejia||RS Sophomore||6'3, 270 lbs.|
|Lamonte McDougle||RS Sophomore||6'0, 291 lbs.|
|Dallas Hobbs||RS Sophomore||6'6, 285 lbs.|
|Beau Braden||RS Freshman||6'4, 261 lbs.|
|Michael Van Beek||RS Freshman||6'2, 285 lbs.|
|Brennan Jackson||RS Freshman||6'4, 252 lbs.|
|Ahmir Crowder||RS Freshman||6'3, 274 lbs.|
|Dylan Lewis||Freshman||6'3, 250 lbs.|
|Jake Siegal||Freshman||6'3, 254 lbs.|
|Rudder Romo||Freshman||6'2, 260 lbs.|
|Cosmas Kwete||Freshman||6'3, 241 lbs.|
|Ty Garay-Harris||Freshman||6'5, 255 lbs.|
|Nicholas Sheetz||Freshman||6'3, 250 lbs.|
Lamonte McDougle sat out the 2018 season after transferring from West Virginia. The big nose tackle was expected to fill in this season, but he’s in a tight competition with guys like Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei and Jesus Echevarria. That must mean there’s more depth at that position than we’ve experienced in the past. McDougle has been practicing with the second team.
Nnamdi Oguayo returns for his senior season, and he needs to stay healthy. Expect to see Will Rodgers III, Dallas Hobbs and Karson Block in the rotation. Ahmir Crowder got some playing time last year but not enough to burn his redshirt. You should see him rotate in as well.
The Cougs allowed 141.46 rushing yards a game last season. Only the Washington Huskies and Utah Utes were better. The Cougs also led the league in sacks with 38. Getting to the quarterback will be key this season, given the inexperienced secondary.
Comfort Level: 3.5 – WSU will never have the biggest defensive line, but it’s built depth the past few seasons, even after losing guys to grades or simply quitting the team (remember Jonathan Lolohea?). This year’s unit, while not full of highly-recruited players, should be at least serviceable.
Keep an eye on: McDougle – His transfer to WSU had enough hype to give us some FOMO last season, but he hasn’t played himself into a starting role. He’ll play plenty of snaps, and whether he plays like the Freshman All-American he was at West Virginia is to be determined.
|Jahad Woods||RS Junior||6'1, 228 lbs.|
|Justus Rogers||RS Junior||6'2, 230 lbs.|
|Dillon Sherman||RS Junior||6'2, 230 lbs.|
|Dominick Silvels*||Junior||6'3, 230 lbs.|
|Hank Pladson||RS Freshman||6'0, 215 lbs.|
|Ricky Baker||RS Freshman||5'11, 215 lbs.|
|Rocky Katoanga||Freshman||6'2, 240 lbs.|
|Kyle Thornton||Freshman||6'0, 220 lbs.|
|Sky Stefonic||Freshman||6'0, 228 lbs.|
|Peni Naulu||Freshman||6'2, 215 lbs.|
|Travion Brown||Freshman||6'3, 220 lbs.|
This unit has plenty of experience despite boasting zero seniors. Jahad Woods is the most experienced, and Justus Rogers and Dillon Sherman—two guys battling for the MIKE linebacker position—each have experience as backups. Rogers has shined in recent practices, too.
Dominick Silvels was recently moved from Rush to the linebacker corps. He’s a big, athletic defender who split time with Willie Taylor III last year. How he fits in with his new position will be interesting, but he’s another big, athletic body to use.
Comfort Level: 3.5 – Woods is the most accomplished, but guys like Rogers, Sherman and Silvels will have to fulfill bigger roles this season.
Keep an eye on: Travion Brown - The big true freshman could be a youngster who gets some playing time this season. We know what we’re getting with the top guys, but Brown is an intriguing player.
2019 Rush Linebackers
|Tristian Brock||RS Senior||6'1, 258 lbs.|
|Fa'avae Fa'avae*||RS Sophomore||6'0, 230 lbs|
|Willie Taylor III||RS Sophomore||6'4, 230 lbs.|
|Ron Stone Jr.||RS Freshman||6'3, 228 lbs.|
|Brandy Okeke||Freshman||6'3, 222 lbs.|
The two primary players at this position last season—Willie Taylor III and Dominick Silvels—combined for 56 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. Silvels is now with the linebackers, and in his spot is Fa’avae Fa’avae. Mike Leach said this move was made to get both on the field a little more, which speaks to the depth at linebacker and rush.
Senior Tristian Brock will fill in as well, and don’t discount redshirt freshman Ron Stone Jr., either.
Comfort Level: 5 – Taylor played well last year and enters his redshirt sophomore season as the likely starter. Fa’avae showed good things in his limited time last year. The one-two punch of Taylor and Fa’avae is a plus.
Oh, and those 38 sacks last season? The majority came from the linebacker and rush positions.
Keep an eye on: Fa’avae – It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on somebody making a position switch. Fa’avae seems like he could do a lot of damage (and not just to parked cars). The coaching staff clearly felt he needed to get on the field more.
|Skyler Thomas*||RS Junior||5'9, 185 lbs.|
|Damion Lee||RS Sophomore||6'0, 200 lbs.|
|Patrick Nunn||RS Freshman||6'4, 210 lbs.|
This is where the worries on defense begin. Hunter Dale was the man last season, but he graduated. His backup was Kedron Williams, but he had to medically retire, presumably the result of the nasty hit he took at the end of the Colorado game last season.
That leaves just three players at the nickel position, and one of them is moving over from safety. Skyler Thomas will be the guy after experimenting with the position switch in the spring.
Behind Thomas are taller, bigger, but younger nickels in Damion Lee and Patrick Nunn.
Comfort Level: 2 – Thank goodness for Thomas, who started last season alongside Thompson at the safety position. If he goes down, let’s hope Lee and Nunn can fill in.
Keep an eye on: Thomas – Here’s another position switch. Some are easier than others, and WSU needs Thomas to excel at nickel.
|Marcus Strong||Senior||5'10, 185 lbs.|
|Shahman Moore||RS Junior||6'1, 175 lbs.|
|George Hicks III||Junior||6'0, 190 lbs.|
|Armani Marsh||RS Sophomore||5'8, 183 lbs.|
|Derrick Langford||Sophomore||6'2, 191 lbs.|
|William Overstreet||RS Freshman||5'10, 175 lbs.|
|Mitchell Delmage||RS Freshman||5'7, 183 lbs.|
|Halid Djibril||RS Freshman||6'1, 190 lbs.|
|Armauni Archie||Freshman||6'0, 175 lbs.|
|Jamal McMurrin||Freshman||5'10, 175 lbs.|
|Matthew Dandridge||Freshman||5'8, 175 lbs.|
|Trey Davis||Freshman||6'1, 192 lbs.|
|Henry Kimmins||Freshman||5'10, 192 lbs.|
WSU will rely on some junior college transfers for bodies at the cornerback positions. WSU went out and got Daniel Isom, Shahman Moore and Derrick Langford from the JC ranks, though Isom moved to safety recently. Marcus Strong will start, and George Hicks III is a junior with experience.
Strong is the only senior, and there are two youngsters who are intriguing: Halid Djibril and Trey Davis—the latter was originally a USC signee. Davis will likely redshirt, whether he’s eligible this season or not.
Oh, and don’t forget about Armani Marsh, who’s crept up the depth chart recently and has been practicing with the ones.
Comfort level: 1.5 – Not all junior college transfers pick things up right away (some do, yes), so we’ll see if guys like Moore and Langford fit in—they have the size, which is a plus. WSU was fourth in the Pac-12 in passing yards allowed per game last season (218.1), though they were seventh in yards allowed per attempt (7.3).
Of course, Langford, despite his size, hasn’t solidified the starting spot yet. Marsh, the 5’8 sophomore out of Spokane, may be the guy.
Keep an eye on: Langford and Marsh – The loss last year of Sean Harper Jr. was a blow to WSU’s size in the secondary last season. We saw how taller receivers picked on WSU’s shorter defenders. Langford has the size to perhaps be what Harper Jr. was, so long as he can step right in.
But as we’ve said, Marsh is the guy with the ones right now. How these two different players are used will be worth watching.
|Daniel Isom||RS Junior||6'0, 192 lbs.|
|Bryce Beekman||RS Junior||6'2, 190 lbs.|
|Chad Davis Jr.||RS Sophomore||6'2, 201 lbs.|
|Tyrese Ross||RS Freshman||6'2, 190 lbs.|
This will be an interesting position. These four are newcomers, but the competition should be a good thing. At Pac-12 Media Day, Jahad Woods mentioned Tyrese Ross as a candidate to start. Bryce Beekman, Chad Davis Jr. and Isom—all JC transfers—were clearly signed to give WSU some experienced depth, however “experienced” they are.
Ideally, this group would be learning under Jalen Thompson. Don’t be surprised if all of them rotate in regularly.
Comfort level: 1 – Boy, I sure hope they prove me wrong. Losing Thompson late in the summer, as we’ve mentioned, was a huge blow. The WSU secondary on paper looks like the weakest unit on the team. Of course, we said similar things about the defensive line last year and it turned out our worries were overblown.
Keep an eye on: All of them – Somebody has to step up and replace Thompson, and with Skylar Thomas moving to nickel, another safety position is up for grabs.
2019 Special Teams
|Jack Crane||Kicker||RS Junior||6'2, 196 lbs.|
|Blake Mazza||Kicker||RS Sophomore||5'9, 175 lbs.|
|Johan Zetterberg||Kicker||RS Sophomore||6'2, 215 lbs.|
|Dean Janikowski||Kicker||Freshman||6'1, 200 lbs.|
|Andrew Boyle||Kicker/Punter||Freshman||6'2, 200 lbs.|
|David Aldapa||Long Snapper||Junior||6'1, 225 lbs.|
|Tyler Williams||Long Snapper||RS Freshman||6'3, 220 lbs.|
|Simon Samarzich||Long Snapper||Freshman||6'0, 210 lbs.|
|Oscar Draguicevich III||Punter||RS Junior||6'0, 185 lbs.|
Did you know WSU led the Pac-12 in punting last season with 45.72 yards per punt? Yeah, the Cougs only punted an average of 3.5 times a game, but still. Oscar Draguicevich returns, as does everybody but long snapper Kyle Celli.
At kicker, Blake Mazza was 10-for-15 on field goals and hit a huge one at Stanford to give WSU the lead late. There were hiccups, like the blocked field goal at USC (ugh) and the miss late at home against Cal (luckily, that one didn’t end up costing the Cougs). Those 15 attempts were second-least in the conference. #NeverKick.
Comfort level: 4 - #CollegeKickers. As long as this doesn’t happen again, we’re good:
Pardon their French.
Keep an eye on: Simon Samarzich – He was supposedly a five-star long snapper and got a scholarship out of the deal. You don’t normally hear of long snappers getting scholarships out of high school, but here we are. He’ll compete with Tyler Williams and David Aldapa for the position of being the guy nobody knows until he screws up.
Your comfort level with the 2019 defense is:
This poll is closed