It appears that WSU has found its new defensive line coach: Jeff Phelps, who previously held the same position at Minnesota, will be replacing Joe Salave’a, according to a report by Cougfan.com.
WSU has not officially confirmed the hire, and is not expected to for some time, according to the story.
UPDATE: It’s official.
Welcome to the Cougar Family Jeff Phelps, our new defensive line coach! #GoCougs #CougD #SpeedD https://t.co/MbhNq8aebp pic.twitter.com/rei2TF1Ylc— WSU Cougar Football (@wsucougfb) January 21, 2017
Phelps, who had been at Minnesota since 2011, oversaw a unit in 2016 that performed exceptionally well by virtually any statistical measure — and in a conference that is known for its physical play. The Golden Gophers ranked in the top 30 in virtually all of Bill Connelly’s rushing metrics, and 16th overall in “adjusted line yards,” a metric that aims to assign credit/blame to the lines.
If you’re into more traditional stats, the Minnesota defense was 14th nationally in rushing yards allowed, 13th in yards per rushing attempt, 13th in rushing touchdowns allowed, 22nd in sacks and 13th in tackles for loss.
And on a level that hits much more close to home, Phelps’ unit helped hold the Cougs’ running backs to just 51 yards on 14 attempts while racking up five sacks and forcing Luke Falk into four other quarterback scrambles in the 17-12 Holiday Bowl loss.
That would seem to bode well, but that’s only part of the equation, as we all know. Salave’a was well known for his ability to exploit a “market inefficiency” by unearthing defensive line talent with Polynesian roots — notably his homeland of American Samoa. It’s highly unlikely Phelps will be able to match that method of Salave’a’s recruiting successes, and if 247Sports is to be believed, Phelps isn’t a recruiting wiz.
Of course, on the flip side, Salave’a wasn’t a stud in terms of landing kids who were highly regarded by the national recruiting services, and in the last couple of years, he had trouble landing big kids at all; WSU has but two defensive lineman on the roster who exceed 290 pounds, and just one over 300. There are currently zero defensive tackles committed in the 2017 recruiting class.
And yet, Salave’a always was able to put together a defensive front that performed at a level somewhere between respectable and very good, coaching players such as Xavier Cooper and Destiny Vaeao onto NFL rosters. It’s likely that will also be the standard for Phelps
The most interesting thing about Phelps, I think, is that after a couple of short stints at smaller schools, he’s only worked at two schools in the last 10 years: Minnesota and Northern Illinois. That’s unusual for most position coaches, and it likely speaks to Phelps’ acumen as a teacher and the value he’s provided to his head coaches and coordinators.
To that end, “coaching them up” seems to be his best attribute, which likely makes this a really good fit for a school that has always had to rely on developing players.