When searching for the genesis of Washington State’s dramatically improved ability to prevent points — the Cougars gave up 117 fewer points in 2015 than in 2014 — look to the edges of the defense.
Darrien Molton, a true freshman, and Marcellus Pippins, a sophomore who saw his first action in WSU’s 10th game last year, made it difficult for quarterbacks to get the ball to outside receivers in 2015, funneling opposing offenses to the middle of the field where defensive linemen, linebackers and safeties were able to track opposing players in condensed space.
The two cornerbacks play man-to-man defense, which means that despite occasional safety help or other schematic assistance, they most frequently have to make one-on-one plays against opposing players.
Though they have the same duties, they are the two players furthest apart on the defense, meaning that communication comes only when senior safety Taylor Taliulu huddles up the secondary after each series.
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“When I come off and he comes on, we just go,” Pippins said. “When we play on the same field it’s like we’re one body on the field. He’s just like me on the field.”
Molton was so good this year that Pro Football Focus named him to its freshman all-american team.
“That’s really impressive because he’s a very unassuming guy, a quiet guy,” said coach Mike Leach, who frequently espouses confidence and self-assuredness as important qualities that allow first-year players to contribute early.
“He 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.”
Thanks in large part to the play of its young cornerbacks, WSU finished tied for 11th nationally in opponent passing plays of 20 or more yards, with 27, and eighth in opponent passing plays of 30 or more yards with 10 allowed.
While the Cougars finished last in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense in 2014, allowing opposing QBs to finish with a passer rating of 158, that mark dropped to 142.5 this year, placing a strong fifth among teams in the Pac-12.
“Probably three, four games into the season I started to feel a lot better,” Molton said. “I got a lot more confidence and was able to play more my game.”
Under first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, the Cougars defenders have frequently spoken of the team’s increased energy, and Leach has noted that his team’s defenders react quicker thanks to simple, clear defensive schemes.
While the schemes are simple, they are also secret. Molton and Pippins say that the team frequently disguises coverages, showing one defensive look before the ball is snapped and then quickly transitioning into something else.
Grinch also serves as defensive backs coach — he was a secondary coach at Missouri before coming to WSU — and it seems likely that sharing a meeting room with the man in charge of the defense has quickened the drastic improvement among the cornerbacks. .
“That’s extremely helpful to have him do both,” Pippins said. “He helps us know the plays but also know the techniques we need for that specific play. We get to watch film and go over our techniques.”