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Ask CougCenter Anything: How good is the WSU defensive secondary?

That and more in the mailbag.

National Funding Holiday Bowl - Minnesota v Washington State Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Welcome to our first edition of the CougCenter mailbag. You might be wondering what took us so long. We’re actually wondering the same thing. Oh well.

If you want to participate next week, send your questions to On to the questions!

The cliché take on WSU defense is that we're progressing overall thanks to a decent D line and good linebackers, but the secondary is the weak link. How bad is our secondary? Where would it rank in the pac12? Last season it seemed like they did fine as long as the opposing quarterback was pressured, but struggled when the quarterback had time (esp. against stronger teams with good O lines and receivers). Isn't that exactly what you'd expect, which suggests more of a problem with the D line not generating pressure?

- Skuyler H.

Britton: I’m probably not as worried about the back end right now as I should be. Maybe it’s because I think Robert Taylor is going to take some big strides this season, but no one is going to replace Shalom Luani. It is concerning that Marcellus Pippins, entering his senior season, hasn’t distanced himself from Marcus Strong, who saw action in just six games as a true freshman.

Nuss: I don’t know the Pac-12 secondaries well enough to rank ours, but if I did, I’d guess they rank middle of the pack. I think Taylor and Jalen Thompson could both take massive steps forward, and I tend to think it’s a positive that Strong is pushing Pippins and that it says more about Strong than Pippins.

Cassino: Our secondary isn’t great. Gave up the 9th most yards per game in the country last year, and were middle of the pack in terms of picks and passes defended. So a bit opportunistic.

Nuss: But good enough?

NCAA Football: California at Washington State
Jalen Thompson’s development will be key.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Cassino: Good enough to hold up if #SpeedD can get pressure. I worry about that against a solid O-Line that’s significantly bigger than our D-Line and can get anywhere close to its athleticism. (Aside: If Team X’s O-Line is better than Team Y’s front seven on a consistent basis, I’m not super interested in what the skill position match-ups do. So we’re going to lose to most teams that have a better O-Line than our defense. There’s your crusty old football coach line.)

Sherwood: They’re not great, but I don’t think it matters. WSU only played like three competent quarterbacks last season and they only play around three this season, too. Pretty easy to make a team one-dimensional when they meet you more than halfway. But maybe watch the USC game through the cracks of your fingers.

Nuss: As I rewatch the season, I tend to think the pressure thing was a little over blown — they did a bad job getting all the way home, but I am seeing a fair amount of pressure. Actually getting some more sacks this year will obviously help a ton.

Cassino: Somebody has to help Mata’afa.

Nuss: Yep, that was a big difference from 2015 — we were missing the bookends that Mata’afa and Ivan McLennan/Kache Palacio formed. I think this is where ...

Britton: NNAMDI. OGUAYO. And Derek Moore. So, so excited.

Nuss: Yes, that’s what I was about to say. I think Oguayo in particular could be a revelation. I’m also stoked about the idea of Frankie Luvu as a pass rusher.

Preston: I got here too late to add anything of real significance that these smart dudes didn’t already cover but I’ll go with: if they can continue to prevent the big play, they’ll be fine. Keep the ball in front of you, don’t let teams kill you with long plays. And yeah, like any secondary, they’re better when the defensive line is getting to the quarterback which ... well, that could be interesting!

PJ: Leach has always been a coach who wants his defenses to take risks. That means giving up big plays, but also creating “havoc.” In 2016, WSU ranked 7th in the Pac-12 in INTs and 10th in sacks. There was a deficit in the risk/reward calculus, and that points to a lack of pressure on the quarterback. Regardless of how good your secondary is, they can’t cover forever. I think WSU’s secondary is somewhere toward the middle of the conference, with Washington and Stanford being far above the rest of the league. They have to get pressure to be successful, but the most successful teams get pressure with four guys. It will be tough for WSU to do that consistently in 2017.

How does the defensive line stack up? Especially with them being short at a true NT.

- Keith, Seattle, WA

Preston: Thinner than Kate Moss on a diet.

Cassino: A Kate Moss reference in 2017. I didn’t think we’d be there, but here we are.

Preston: My jokes are always “what would a stereotypically bad comedian in 1996 say”.

Sherwood: Let’s find you a question to discuss airplane food.

Britton: I’m convinced the lack of a true nose tackle is by design. An odd design, though.

Nuss: See, I don’t buy that, unless “by design” means “an adaptation based on necessity.” Maybe they just decided it wasn’t worth the resources to pursue those guys, who are scarce. And I get that. But c’mon — I mean, if a space eater in the middle wasn’t a big deal, coaches wouldn’t be killing each other to try and get them, right?

Britton: WSU hasn’t tried to kill any coaches for a nose tackle in two classes. They’ve offered maybe three? There was one that I can think of in the 2017 cycle — Austin Faoliu, who everyone wanted, then he ended up signing with that Joe Salave’a guy.

Cassino: At what point is it Chicken v. Egg? Can’t recruit noses, so adapt the defense for no noses, so don’t recruit noses, then don’t need noses. Get run over by Stanford, start recruiting noses.

Sherwood: You can’t break up with us, Nose Tackles. We break up with you!

Dudley: D-line depth could be an issue. Ekuale and McBroom are the big guys but other than that, we’re smaller than a traditional d-line. Tago is now a lineman and I think that speaks to the lack of depth. He was a solid Rush but now he’s going to go up against big tackles.

Cassino: It’s logical though. If you can’t be bigger than the other guys, be faster. I’m not convinced it will fly, but hey. There’s a reason Grinch makes significantly more money than I do.

Britton: As the great Conor McGregor says, “precision beats power.” It’ll totally work.

Dudley: Being faster because we’re smaller sounds good but I’ll believe it when we get consistent pressure on the QB.

Cassino: Just not for Conor McGregor.

Sherwood: I suppose this is a step up from Kate Moss references.

PJ: I think the defensive line will be ok for the first month, then we’ll see a gradual dropoff as the season progresses, due to the Calista Flockhart-like depth (See what I did there?). This will be especially impacted by the fact that the bye week comes so late. It will affect the defensive line more than anyone else.

Which game on WSU's schedule looks most like a trap game to you? Last season it was quite nearly Oregon State, and this year looks like there might be a few trap games, depending on how the records look going into said games. Nevada definitely stands out, sandwiched between first Pac12 game of the year and USC, but do you think there are any other major trap games to look out for?

Go Cougs!

- Gabriel B.

Nuss: Montana State, whom I will be picking to win the opener.

Dudley: Montana State. I still think WSU wins, but man am I worried, based on a few things. Obviously, the past season openers against FCS foes. Also, their QB is terrible at throwing the ball (he completed, like, three of 14 against Montana in the season finale last year) but he is one of those dual threats that can give us fits.

Britton: Montana State.

Cassino: Is it technically a trap game if it’s the first game of the year? I mean we must be terrible at seeing traps if that’s the case.

NCAA Football: Nevada at UNLV
Is it a trap?
Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

Dudley: Other than MSU, I’m going with Cal. Friday night, on the road, supposed to be a bad team.

Sherwood: Montana State isn’t a trap game. Nobody expects to beat Montana State.

Nuss: OK, fine, if a first game isn’t a trap game ... I’ll go with Nevada. I tend to look at games that come at the end of a series of games that tend to elicit emotional and/or physical investment. They’re definitely going to be hyped for MSU, they’re going to want revenge on Boise, and OSU is the first Pac-12 game, so there will be meaning there. Nevada is a team they could easily overlook a little, a la OSU after the Oregon/Stanford/UCLA/ASU run last season.

Cassino: Nevada is my first instinct as well, it having the potential to be a classic look-ahead game. That USC game could be as big as the ‘02 USC game.

Sherwood: I don’t like that Oregon State game one bit. There’s no reason in the world that team should be within three touchdowns of WSU, but it still scares me.

Dudley: Erik Powell knee slide, please.

PJ: Colorado. WSU could (should?) be 6-1 and in the Top 20. Colorado will have had time to get their young guys acclimated, and McIntyre will have them ready, even though he probably should’ve been fired.


Football related question: Do you think the rise of a fantastic running back group this year was a happy accident or was it all part of Leach's crazy scheme to reveal the complexity of the Air Raid to people who think we never run the ball?

Basketball related question: When am I going to enjoy watching WSU basketball again?

CougCenter hangout question: Any chance you guys are going to make it down for the Utah game in Salt Lake City this year? I might go and it would be nice to give high fives.

That is all. Go Cougs!

- James H.


Nuss: The running backs thing is absolutely by design — at Texas Tech, Leach had some really good running teams. Again, the idea behind the Air Raid is to make teams defend a 1500-square-yard box with 11 guys, and in order to do that, you’ve got to be able to run. It’s just that now we have the weapons on the line/in the backfield to do it.

Dudley: I’m glad the RBs are getting some love. The tired media narrative that all we do is pass (I know, stats and such) is lazy. But to answer the question, definitely by design. Took a few years to get solid RBs, but Jim Mastro is a genius.

Jim Mastro, running backs whisperer.
WSU Athletic Communcations


Nuss: That’s no joke. Mastro has an incredible eye for talent that both (A) will thrive at WSU in the Air Raid, and (B) will actually sign with WSU. Remember, Mastro was on James Williams before anyone else, and stayed with him after he blew out his knee. Both of those were pretty good decisions!

Dudley: You’ll enjoy Cougar basketball in eight years. If not in eight years, then never. Because we can’t possibly be bad for that long, can we? CAN WE??

Nuss: We totally can be bad for that long. And we have been at times. But, if we look at Kent’s history, his best teams are his most experienced teams, and I’m encouraged that they’ve now got a staff in place that should be able to land more talent. So, if we go by that ... I dunno ... five years from now? Four years from now?

Dudley: I’m just so jaded. But I appreciate your optimism.

Nuss: This is what passes for optimism these days.

Cassino: This has me so super pumped for Cougar Basketball you guys.

Sherwood: So that’s a no on the party bus to Utah? I’m not sure I can cancel the deposit.

Nuss: Taking the family on an out-of-state vacation to a certain theme park in Southern California around Christmas time, so ... yeah, there’s not really a “travel for football” budget.

PJ: We will never be good at basketball. Just start there and everything else is gravy.

My question is - What is the Cougs’ biggest weakness heading into this season, aside from the obvious and often talked about receiver group and depth on the defensive line.

- Richard G.

Dudley: I actually think the wide receivers will be just fine. They have probably their best group of athletes they’ve ever had at that position since Leach has been here. A lot of them are young, but I’m still not worried. The only thing to worry about is how the young guys do blocking. Leach has called out his receivers in the past for poor blocking (“....with the possible exception of John Thompson.”) so hopefully they’ll pick that up quickly.

Cassino: Yeah, agreed on the receiver corps. They look solid, which is a relief with Marks and Cracraft leaving campus. The young guys have shown up in camp.

Dudley: So I think the biggest weakness is depth in the secondary. They have plenty of experience in the top group, but if one or more goes down, look out.

Nuss: I’ll go contrarian and say the linebackers. Remember, this is relative to other position groups, and they just strike me as steady, but unspectacular.

Sherwood: Biggest weakness will easily by my liver after five consecutive home games.

Nuss: Good thing your liver has had lots of practice after a lifetime of Cougar football that included four years of Paul Wulff.

Sherwood: I’ve recently cut out the middle man and just dropped a shot of Pepto directly into the Fireball bottle.

Cassino: I’ll go deep in the woods and say Erik Powell/special teams. I’m actually fine with Powell’s placekicking last year. Eventually. He hit nine of his last ten, and his only miss in that stretch was the 50-something yarder at Colorado. But the camp reports mention that he’s kicking FGs/PATs, kicking off, and punting. It’s a rare college kicker that can manage to do all three successfully. I’m not convinced Powell is the second coming of Jason Hanson. Also #neverpunt.

PJ: (no longer special apparently) #Forces

Now that NFL is heating up which former Coug are you most excited to watch in the NFL??

I'm biased and excited to see Shalom Luani!! One of my legs bleeds black and silver while the other leg bleeds Crimson and gray. Shalom is making the most of his opportunities and he turned up big in the pre-season game and has jumped off the tape in off season practices. Reggie Nelson is the veteran Starter, Oakland drafted Obi Melifonwu in the second round who is thought to be Reggie's replacement. However he has been Hurt moving Shalom up in the depth chart and rising his stock. The GM calls him a "Football playing Jessie" and flys all over the field. I think he will make the final 53 roster by special teams and depth at safety. He is getting mad love from the Raider Nation right now check out the silverandblackpride SB nation blog. Here are two articles on him alone...calling him a 7th round draft steal.

- Quientin

Dudley: Using your legs bleeding as showing your fandom is new to me. I’m going to use it and definitely claim it as my own. Anyway, I’m mostly with you. Luani is versatile and I think that can be used to his advantage in the NFL. I’m also curious to see if Joe Dahl plays more. He’s benefited from injuries ahead of him so perhaps he gets in more games. Of course, if Marks gets any playing time, that will definitely interest me, despite him being on the Jets. Lastly, I heard Vince Mayle is now a tight end. I’ve forgotten what those are.

Dudley: So I guess I’m mostly excited about almost all of the Cougs in the NFL.

Sherwood: Anxiously awaiting the Michael Bumpus comeback story.

Cassino: Luke Falk next year? I’m interested to see if Marks will stick on the roster with the Jets. They have about negative-three receivers there at this point, so seeing him and Marquess Wilson both on the field at the same time would be pretty sweet.

Dudley: Every time a team is short on QBs, I think of Jeff Tuel.

Nuss: Begrudgingly, I’ll say Deone Bucannon. Wish he played for another team in a different division! #12Forever

PJ: Reid Forrest