With signing day in the rear view mirror and spring football well underway, now's a great time to take stock of each of the eight position groups on WSU's roster. Let's go back over to defense for a unit that has made perhaps the biggest strides of any on the roster in the past two seasons: The secondary.
Looking back at 2015
End of Season Depth Chart
|Starter||Darrien Molton, Fr||Shalom Luani, Jr||Taylor Taliulu, Sr||Marcellus Pippins, So||Parker Henry, RS-Jr|
|2nd||Kirkland Parker, RS-So||Isaac Dotson, RS-So||Calvin Green, So||Charleston White, RS-So||Logan Tago, Fr|
In Brief: No unit was more maligned in Mike Breske's unfortunate tenure as WSU defensive coordinator than the secondary; in two of Breske's three seasons, the Cougs' pass defense was among the worst in the nation, unable to prevent plays big and small through the air.
Of course, it's probably not a coincidence that WSU's one bowl appearance in the first three (2013) was the year the secondary wasn't a total tire fire. So there was hope when Alex Grinch arrived as the new defensive coordinator -- fresh from a stint as Missouri's secondary coach -- that the secondary could immediately improve and again take the team's fortunes with it.
And that's exactly what happened.
The Cougars improved from 127th in passing yards allowed per game to a thoroughly respectable (by WSU standards, anyway) 64th, thanks mostly to vast improvement in limiting explosive plays. In 2014, WSU allowed a whopping 78 pass plays of 15 yards or more, including 36 of 25 yards or more; that number was 59 last season, including just 17 of 25 yards or more:
WSU actually allowed the exact same number of pass plays of 15 to 24 yards, but eliminated 19(!!!) plays of 25+ yards. That will do wonders for your yards per game totals:
|ATT||Y/G||15+ Total||% of Att. 15+||25+ Total||% of Att. 25+|
Beyond simply keeping things in front of them, the secondary also was much more disruptive. WSU broke up a higher percentage of pass attempts in 2015 than the year before (eight more total against roughly the same number of pass attempts) and did a better job of converting those deflections into interceptions. Generally, a team will pick off something between 21 and 24 percent of its defensed passes, but in 2014, the Cougs only picked off a paltry 6 percent. That's incredibly low -- extreme outlier low. Combining a higher rate of passes defensed with a bounce back in that rate (26.5 percent) led to interceptions jumping from three to 13.
There are a lot of directions you can go with the credit for improvement; some of that surely was schematic, some of it obviously was due to development of existing players on the roster, and some of it was simply thanks to an immediate talent infusion.
In terms of the latter, junior college transfer Shalom Luani (safety) and true freshman Darrien Molton (corner) had enormous impacts, starting from game one. Luani did his best Deone Bucannon impression, showing a nose for the ball with those four interceptions and an ability to lay the lumber. Molton, meanwhile, was often conspicuous by his anonymity: Teams just didn't generally throw his direction. Luani earned all-conference honorable mention, while Molton was named to a number of freshman all-American teams while earning the distinction of being Pro Football Focus' highest-graded freshman corner.
"(Molton) came in here and it didn’t take long," Leach said. "A day into camp he started creating a presence out there and continued to improve, and then you wonder if he was going to fade at all, or flinch, or take a step back like freshmen do sometimes. And he never really did. He’s steadily been in the starting lineup throughout the season, and I think the distinction is well deserved, too."
In terms of development, senior Taylor Taliulu became a serviceable strong safety, while sophomore Marcellus Pippins saw the bulk of the action across from Molton, although Charleston White also saw plenty of action -- he started a pair of games Molton sat out due to injury against Arizona and Stanford. The defense really didn't miss a beat in either of those games. (If we pretend like the last 5 minutes in Tucson didn't happen, anyway.)
The installation of Grinch's system also brought a new position into the mix: Nickleback. While every school uses a "nickel" at times, Grinch made it a permanent position that went beyond the traditional fifth defensive back -- it was more of the hybrid LB/DB role that has become in vogue in college football over the past half decade. Isaac Dotson -- nearly linebacker size -- started the season there, but after suffering through another spate of injuries, former walk-on Parker Henry stepped in and played extremely well. He's a bit smaller than Dotson, but is lacking nothing in the toughness category.
Looking Ahead to 2016
Projected Depth Chart
|Starter||Darrien Molton, So||Shalom Luani, Sr||Jalen Thompson, Fr||Marcellus Pippins, Jr||Parker Henry, RS-Sr|
|2nd||Charleston White, RS-Jr||Robert Taylor, Jr||Charleston White, RS-Jr||Treshon Broughton, Sr||Isaac Dotson, RS-Jr|
|3rd/etc||Deion Singleton, RS-Fr||Darius Lemora, RS-Jr||Hunter Dale, So||Willie Roach, RS-Sr||Kirkland Parker, RS-Jr|
|Suli Hameed, RS-So||Kameron Powell, RS-Fr||Colton Teglovic, RS-Sr|
In Brief: While the improvement was definitely something to get excited about, Grinch will be the first to tell you that the secondary most certainly hasn't yet arrived.
Those 13 interceptions ranked just 47th nationally on a per game basis. The passes broken up still ranked just 98th. They were 79th in number of first downs allowed via the pass. Their completion percentage against was 114th nationally. And whatever you think of passer rating as a metric, the Cougs ranked just 59th nationally. Yes, the pass defense looked pretty good overall in the advanced metrics, ranking 24th nationally overall by S&P+, but the Cougars ranked 79th nationally in the metric on passing downs and 114th in success rate allowed on those downs.
Fortunately, there is good reason to believe that the Cougars can continue on their upward trend of improvement.
The biggest reason is simply experience. Grinch returns, as does virtually all the personnel -- most of which has two or more years of eligibility remaining -- including the secondary's strongest players, Molton and Luani. The athletes should be stronger, faster and more savvy in their second year in Grinch's system. They already look pretty great, even just in spring; this video gives you a good look not just at that, but at how Grinch is coaching these guys now with a season under his belt. (Sorry for the extra click -- the embedding didn't want to play nice with our site.)
That means this spring WSU has been toying with moving guys around to different positions in an effort to get his best (and fastest) players on the field. White has seen some time at safety next to Luani, where Grinch needs to replace Taliulu. Also factoring into the mix next to Luani will be true freshman Jalen Thompson, an early enrolee who has opened a lot of eyes this spring.
Additionally, Pippins has lost reps this spring at corner to Treshon Broughton, a highly regarded junior college transfer who missed fall camp while (presumably) clearing up some eligibility issues. He never did seem to catch up last season, but now that he's fully up to speed with an offseason still to go, it wouldn't be a shocker if he won a job. Again, not because Pippins backslid, but because he just got beat.
Nickel should be solid with Henry and possibly Dotson, who was seen working a bit at linebacker early in spring. There certainly will be other names in the mix ... we just don't yet know who they will be. Logan Tago, now headed for rush end, played some nickel last season, so if you have a guess as to who might see action there, you have a decent chance of not being wrong.
It's a heck of a place to be for a unit that can take even another giant step forward this season.
"The one thing I will highlight is the need for more production," Grinch said in a radio interview in March. "We need to get more hands on footballs when the ball is thrown. I think we were in situations where we need to win more battles with the ball in the air. If the standard is 'we weren't bad,' then that's a pretty low standard. We need to improve that way. There are more plays for us to make on the back end."
2017 Recruiting Outlook
Defensive back is one of the few positions where WSU has already secured a commitment for 2017. Tayari Venable, out of Rancho Cucamonga, California, gave his verbal way back in July -- before starting his junior season, which ended up in the CIF playoffs. He finished with 50 tackles, broke up three passes, forced two fumbles, and picked off a pass:
According to Venable, WSU offered after he came to their camp, and he quickly accepted.
"I feel like I can play early there," he said back in September, after his junior year. "I really like the way Coach (Mike) Leach has turned the program around. I think it’s pretty great."
How solid is a kid who commits before his junior year? Who knows. He doesn't list himself as a WSU commit on his Twitter page, and he's been retweeting a lot of Oregon State tweets recently. He also said in that December interview that he was planning on taking lots of visits up and down the coast. So ... yeah. Take it for what it's worth. But he's a solid three-star composite kid who would be a nice addition to the roster.
Some of the other offers that are out to defensive backs include three-stars Michael Onyemaobi, Elijah Hicks, and Jason Rucker, who visited on Junior Day a couple of weeks ago. Other Junior Day visitors included Venable's teammate and three-star Darren Hall, two-star recruit Anfernee Gurley (Everett) and unrated recruits Brandon Thompson (Yelm), Max Novak (Tacoma) and Vos Price (Chino Hills, California).