One of the unquestioned strengths of the Washington State football team this season is a plentiful supply of defensive backs who know the Cougars’ schemes thoroughly and can be ushered onto the field at a moment’s notice.
Nonetheless, the two likely starters at safety in the season opener this week have never played a down of NCAA football.
This is partly a reflection of coaches’ resolve to get the fastest, most talented athletes on the field. It’s also a reflection of what happened at a Pullman pizzeria in the wee hours last Wednesday.
It’s still unknown whether the Cougars will have the services of Shalom Luani for a home game Saturday against Eastern Washington, after the standout safety was arrested last week for allegedly punching a fellow student in an altercation at Domino’s Pizza. He has apparently been suspended from team activities while the case is being investigated.
From an X’s and O’s perspective, the incident was a reminder of how quickly the strength of any position group can be thrown into doubt, regardless of its depth. The Cougars still have a solid secondary, but they’re opening the season against a respected FCS passing attack and they’re relying on a couple of safeties who have yet to prove themselves on a big stage.
Coaches had already been planning to start Jalen Thompson (6 feet, 183 pounds), a true freshman from Southern California who enrolled last January and became a sensation in the spring workouts.
Now, the other safety will probably be Robert Taylor (5-10, 180), a junior-college transfer who enrolled this semester and has also spent time at UC Davis. He had already been vying for a No. 1 cornerback role, and he trained at both positions during preseason camp.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say Alex Grinch, defensive coordinator and secondary coach, is free from worry about all this. But he mentions Thompson and Taylor in the same breath as cornerback Darrien Molton, which is a good sign. And the two new safeties aren’t likely to lose any footraces.
As long as Luani remains out, Molton (5-10, 175) is the headliner of the Cougar secondary, a laconic sophomore who has impressed everyone on the team with his focus and discipline since he arrived in Pullman a year ago. Molton was named to two freshman All-America teams.
“From Day 1, he’d step up against a Gabe Marks and just compete,” Grinch said, mentioning WSU’s career receptions leader. “It didn’t matter who it was.”
At the other cornerback spot, accomplished junior Marcellus Pippins (5-10, 175) finds himself battling Treshon Broughton (6-0, 185), a gifted senior who transferred from a junior college a year ago but needed some time to get settled. Also in the mix at corner, eventually, will be rangy second-year freshman Deion Singleton (6-2, 192).
Illustrating the depth of the secondary is the fact that Charleston White (6-0, 203), an 11-game starter at corner, is now a backup safety, along with sophomore Hunter Dale (5-10, 197) and possibly true freshman Marcus Strong (5-9, 170).
But Grinch wants to see more if he’s going to label the secondary an undisputed bright spot on the team.
“We’ve had some good days, we’ve had some poor days,” he said. “Time will tell. It’s a production business at the back end. If they’re productive, yeah, we can be a strength. And sign me up to be one. But you’ve got to do it when it counts. We’re still a work in progress.”
Hope for special teams
The Cougars’ improvement in this area last year was measured in the improvement of Erik Powell, who seized the place-kicking job early in the season and converted 20 of 26 field goals and all 49 of his conversion kicks. His leg appears stronger as he heads into his junior season.
Also returning is sophomore punter Zach Charme, who averaged a shade less than 40 yards a boot last season and is looking for more consistency.
One remaining albatross of the Cougars’ decade of futility is their unspectacular return game, where they haven’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2003 and haven’t scored on a punt runback since 2005.
Tavares Martin Jr. flirted with ending the kickoff dry spell last year and will now continue that quest, possibly with help from Taylor and James Williams. The top candidates for punt-return duties are Kaleb Fossum, Taylor and Gabe Marks.
And the opponents’ TDs in the return game last year?
Four. So progress is definitely needed.