There's been a lot of focus on how to improve WSU's defense, and a lot of that focus has centered on Alex Grinch and whether he's going to be up to the task in his first defensive coordinator job.
But as I was rewatching the Rutgers and Portland State games from last season (yes, I'm that hard up for football), something hit me: Just how few of the starters from those games are the starters now, and how many of those new starters should be a talent upgrade from the guys who opened 2014.
Here's who was on the field moments before Gary Nova found Leonte Caroo for a 78-yard touchdown:
And here's how these guys have changed in the 12 months since (Portland State is an educated guess):
|2014 Rutgers Starter||2015 Portland State Starter||Notes|
|1 - S||Teondray Caldwell - Jr.||------>||Shalom Luani - Jr.||Caldwell converted from RB days before the game; Luani a 4-star JUCO recruit|
|2 - S||Taylor Taliulu - Jr.||------>||Taylor Taliulu - Sr.||Benched each of last 3 years; maybe he goes the Alex Hoffman-Ellis route and figures it out?|
|3 - CB||Daquawn Brown - So.||------>||Charleston White - RS So.||White posted 2 more passes defensed than Brown last season in 3 fewer games|
|4 - CB||Tracy Clark - RS Sr.||------>||Darrien Molton - Fr.||From a 5th year player seeing first action ever to a freshman who beat out the rest of the roster|
|5 - BUCK||Kache Palacio - Jr.||------>||Kache Palacio - Sr.||Already a good player who figures to get better, this year as the Rush linebacker|
|6 - WLB||Tana Pritchard - RS Jr.||------>||Jeremiah Allison - Sr.||Pritchard transferred to play basketball; Allison took this job in game four and became team's best LB|
|7 - MLB||Darryl Monroe - Jr.||------>||Peyton Pelluer - RS So.||Monroe transferred to Akron, presumably because Pelluer took his job last year|
|8 - SLB||Mitchell Peterson - RS Sr.||------>||Isaac Dotson - RS So.||Peterson gave way to Coen in 2014; this position has become "nickelback" under Grinch|
|9 - DE||Destiny Vaeao - Jr.||------>||Darryl Paulo - RS Sr.||Perhaps a lateral move, but reason to think senior might be better than junior|
|10 - NT||Toni Pole - RS Sr.||------>||Robert Barber - RS Jr.||Big downgrade in experience, but coaches rave about his athleticism|
|11 - DT||Xavier Cooper - RS Jr.||------>||Destiny Vaeao - Sr.||Big shoes to fill, but Vaeao had enough athleticism to play some Buck last year|
By my count, that's at least five clear upgrades (Luani, Molton, Dotson, Pelluer and Allison), with a few of others where you don't have to imagine real hard to conclude it probably will be an upgrade (Taliulu, White, Palacio), and another where it might be (Paulo). About the only two spots where you're not going to be able to make that argument are the two tackle positions -- it's just not reasonable to think Vaeao is going to be as good as an NFL third rounder, and Pole was a stalwart.
But that's eight of 11 where it's pretty easy to figure the starters are better now in terms of talent.
Beyond that, think about who the guys are behind the starters. I'd consider the majority of the second stringers to be as good or better than most of the players who have been replaced from that first game -- guys like Chandler Leniu, Hercules Mata'afa, Pat Porter, Sulaiman Hameed and Darius Lemora.
Remember, this doesn't even take into account whatever coaching the guys are receiving. But even if Grinch's coaching is no better than Mike Breske's, he's at least playing with a better hand on the field.
EDIT: Updated to correct an error in the positions of Allison and Dotson.