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Big defensive changes on the WSU depth chart before ASU

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With Tracy Claeys’ resignation, this was the most obvious chance at improvement.

Northern Colorado v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Well, it looks like we got our first set of answers to the question, “What kinds of changes will the Washington State Cougars make now that defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has resigned?”, as the just-released depth chart reveals significant moves with personnel in advance of Saturday’s game against the Arizona State Sun Devils.

The biggest changes are position moves for Skyler Thomas and Daniel Isom, each of whom have struggled in their roles this year. Thomas will move from nickel to strong safety, while Isom will move from strong safety to cornerback. Each of these seem like natural moves. Thomas was the starting free safety all of last season and he’ll now be in a spot where he can combine the skills of free safety and nickel; Isom has primarily been a corner in his career and played there throughout the spring, looking like one of the team’s better players there.

Sliding into Thomas’ spot will be redshirt freshman Pat Nunn, who at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds brings a completely different element to the position than most of the players who have been in that spot over the years: Shalom Luani was 6-foot/205 and Hunter Dale was 5-10/195. It will be interesting to see how well he can cover at that size, but we know he can tackle with ferocity — and there’s a decent chance that’s exactly what the coaching staff decided they needed in that spot. Armani Marsh has switched from corner to Nunn’s backup; at 5-10/183, it seems there might be a plan to play Marsh on obvious passing downs.

The other changes deal mostly with depth. Dallas Hobbs is the new listed starter at nose tackle, but I think he might have started the last game. Regardless, he’s played plenty of snaps. Lamonte McDougle has dropped off the depth chart, but I’m not sure how much to read into that. Freshman Cosmas Kwete has ascended to “or” at defensive end with Nnamdi Oguayo.

With that, Mike Leach spoke at length about the defensive situation during his media availability today. He didn’t shed a lot of new light on Claeys’ departure, but he did offer a little insight into what he thought was going wrong.

“We didn’t have any shortage of strategy. We had too much strategy,” he said. “I mean all the strategy in the world, everybody thinks there’s some secret recipe or if somebody would’ve just said that, or just run this. It’s never like that and it never has been.”

That actually jives with what we saw on the field, where players routinely appeared to be out of position; Connor Halliday talked on this podcast about how the team was often not even lined up correctly against the Utah Utes. Yes, Halliday also said they were absurdly simple in their coverages against the Utes, but that’s after a month of too much stuff being put in their ears, perhaps to the point of total confusion. The emphasis now, as it always is under Leach, is to keep things simple in order to play fast and execute without a lot of thought — they definitely weren’t playing fast, and they definitely looked like they were thinking too much.

Leach also appears to think something was missing with Claeys up in his perch above the field. Interim co-defensive coordinators Roc Bellantoni (linebackers coach) and Darcel McBath (secondary coach) will work together on the game plan during the week, then Bellantoni will head up to the box on gameday to make the play calls, while McBath will be a motivating presence on the sideline — much like Alex Grinch was.

“I think one of the most difficult things as a coordinator is the organizational process, as far as what you do when,” Leach said. “So I do think the pair of them are pretty good, because Darcel’s been here longer and also played at a high level, although he’s a young guy. Then I think that’s what you’re really trying to do, to marry up, is leadership that provides inspiration and organization and execution. I think between the two of them, it’s potentially a good combination.”