Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Young Secondary a Primary Concern?


Good morning Coug Nation. Hope all is well in your corner of the world. As you may or may not be aware/care, we've looked at the '09 Cougs among the positional previews, and so far, so good. Now we come to the last group to check out, and that is the secondary.

Err...maybe not. Some of you already saw it, but, WSU has put out their own pre-camp depth chart, complete with an analysis of the candidates to start at each position. And new and improved, NOW WITH comments from coach Wulff! It's a really good read, so if you haven't already clicked over, check it out.

That said, we'll still weigh in and offer up our own opinions. Hey, we're a blog. It's what we do. So let's scan the secondary, and see if things are going to be better in '09? Or, are we doomed for more struggles in the last line of defense? Let's see....



To get the obligatory "2008 was a disaster" out of the way, yeah, the secondary had their issues too. But it's not as bad as you might think, at least on paper anyway. They finished 6th in the PAC-10 in passing yards allowed per game, just a couple of yards per game more than 5th place Cal. But they gave up the 3rd-most TD passes in the conference(22), and at 7.8 yards per attempt, were just ahead of UW for ninth place.

While this isn't good, well, I don't think it's entirely the fault of the secondary. The sack totals were really down, just 16 as a team, tied with UW for dead LAST in the conference. Can't get any pressure on the QB, give him time to set up, make a ham sandwich, and still deliver the ball wherever he wants? Not good. And then you consider the lack of takeaways, where the Cougs averaged one takeaway a game (13 for the entire season), and you can see it wasn't exactly an opportunistic group.

Wow, 16 sacks and 13 takeaways for an entire 13-game season. Just thinking back to the early part of the decade, WSU's defenses used to pride themselves on two things - SACKS AND TAKEAWAYS! Think about that great run from '01 - '03. In '01, they had 40 sacks and grabbed 26 INT's, second only to Miami in the country. In '02, they had a school-record 55 sacks(!), and led the PAC-10 in rushing defense. In '03, Doba's boys led the nation in takeaways (48), tops in fumble recoveries (24) and second in interceptions (24). They were also in the top 10 in rushing defense and pass-efficiency defense.



So you can just take a peek back into our own history to remember and realize how important sacks and picks are to a defense, hell, to an entire football team overall. And the Coug D in '08 didn't do much sacking or taking away of the football!

The lack of pressure up front really trickled down. Even the best defensive backs in the country can only be expected to hang with the coverage for four or five seconds, but after that, even the best are going to give up plays. It's the nature of the beast, but the secondary without a pass rush really has no chance to thrive...let alone survive.

Obviously the numbers can sure be skewed, too, can't they? For example, Oregon gave up nearly 1,000 MORE passing yards on the '08 season than WSU, and they surrendered 25 TD passes, the worst in the conference. In fact, Oregon gave up 270 yards per game in the air, also worst in the entire PAC-10! Not what you would assume, just thinking of their strong pass-rushers like Nick Reed and Will Tukuafu, and a stacked secondary with Jairus Byrd, Patrick Chung, Walter Thurmand III, etc. But as you know, Oregon won 10 games last year and were Holiday Bowl champs. So, trying to swallow the entire stack o' pure passing D stats and justifying things isn't the best route to go. Just look at WSU's rushing defense, or lack thereof, and you can see there's always two sides to the argument. The Cougs, after all, allowed SEVEN opponents last year to rush for at least 317 yards a game! Why should the opponent do anything but run the heck out of the ball, especially when staked to early lead after early lead?

Anyway, that was last year. Let's just leave it where it belongs. There was a problem. But it's gone. And there's nothing we can do about it....



Cornerbacks
Starters: Aire Justin (soph) and Brandon Jones (redshirt junior).
Key backups: Daniel Simmons(redshirt frosh), Anthony Hayward (redshirt frosh), Anthony Houston (junior, switched from WR last couple of years), Shane Thomas (junior).
New faces: Nolan Washington, Anthony Carpenter.

Analysis: Well, right off the top a pair of experienced starters - Devin Giles and Romeo Pellum - are gone. We won't rehash all that. But clearly the door is wide-flipping-open for any of these youngsters to run right through. Justin (previously known as Tyrone) got a lot of PT last year, six starts plus other action. Justin's on the light side at 156 pounds on a 5-11 frame, but he did alright in his first shot at playing time as a red-shirt frosh last season. His three pass-breakups are the most among all the returning players contending at corner.....but that's because, uh, NOBODY else in the mix for cornerback besides Justin actually played a single down of football last year! Brandon Jones has PAC-10 experience, playing in 12 games from his '07 season at CAL, but that's about it. Everyone else is brand new to this caliber of play, coming off redshirt seasons or even true frosh right out of high school in Carpenter and Washington.

I guess the corners are similar to what we saw along the defensive line - the faces are new, but, it might not be too big of an issue since the newest kids may be better/more talented than those they are replacing anyway? We won't really know until things get serious, but it's an awfully young group of corners. While the PAC-10 might not be what it once was in the air-it-out department, the lack of game experience could be an issue out of the chute. I know, for example, SMU wasn't very good last year, nor are they thought of as any type of breakthrough candidate for the upcoming season. But they throw the heck out of the ball in that June Jones run-n-shoot, and you better believe these inexperienced corners are going to be tested.

Now, Wulff did mention when talking about the corners that Chima Nwachukwu has some starting experience at the position, and could possibly move back there this year if necessary. I guess it wouldn't be a shock to see Chima slide over if some of the young guys aren't quite ready, or we see some injuries pile up.

I know a lot of people really like Nolan Washington, the true frosh. A highly rated kid coming out of Kennedy high school, the early buzz on what he could become has been extremely positive.


You hate to throw out any type of expectation for true frosh, but this could be a different story. He was labeled "a divison I prospect with outstanding speed and great instincts" by the Seattle Times, and it isn't a stretch to think he could see some early PT. You would hope a talented true frosh like Washington could redshirt that first year, then you cut him loose in 2010, but his performance in camp and the subsequent performances of those in front of him may dictate that he see the field this year.

Safeties
Starters: Xavier Hicks (senior) at strong safety, Chima Nwachukwu (junior) at free safety.
Key Backups: Tyree Toomer (soph), Jay Matthews (redshirt frosh) at strong safety; Eric Block (redshirt soph) and Leandre Daniels (redshirt frosh) at free safety.
Newcomers: Jamal Atofau, Casey Locker

This area looks pretty strong. Hicks is set for his senior year, and maybe this is the season it all comes together for him. Big hitter and the leading returning defensive player on the entire team in terms of tackles (78), interceptions (2) and pass breakups (5), this is it for Hicks. There never has been much doubt that the kid could play the position. We all remember the de-cleater vs. UCLA where he absolutely destroyed WR Brandon Breazell over the middle....


He has a nose for the ball, and even in just three starts back in '07 he logged 60 tackles primarily as a backup. That's taking advantage of limited playing time and making the most of it, no question. Nothing else to really say about his off-the-field stuff, so we'll leave it at that. They MUST get a huge season out of Hicks - HUGE - to have a respectable defense. Every good secondary needs an intimidating presence of sorts, someone to set the tone with aggression and strike a little fear for those who dare to venture over the middle. Hicks has that ability.

Chima is an interesting player. I still can't believe he's only a junior, as he's been starting since he arrived in Pullman. He already has 25 starts under his belt and he's still got a couple of years of eligibility left! Smart, strong, and not afraid to get his hands dirty with 57 tackles last year, he will be a crucial piece for the entire secondary. It's not too crazy to say that the combo of Hicks and Nwachukwu could be one of the best safety duo's we've had in some time, and maybe one of the better sets in the conference?

Eric Block is a guy to keep an eye on. Especially if Chima has to slide over to corner to provide some veteran experience and leadership, but Block, if healthy, could be a rising member of the secondary. Just a redshirt sophomore coming into this year, he's dealt with some injuries and illness in his time in Pullman, but it sounds as though he's ready to go. As to the other new faces, I would bet Wulff has designs on redshirting both Atofau and Locker if he can help it. There is depth at the safety spots, but with Hicks graduating after this season, it would be wise to preserve some future eligibility on the talented youngsters. Let's hope they aren't forced to play out of desperation.

That's it for the secondary, and our '09 pre-camp positional previews are now complete. I hope you enjoyed them. After all those smelly spring fishwraps, it was fun to kind of dig in and see how things are looking for the crimson and gray lads, right on the eve of camp.

I have to admit, overall, I'm encouraged and excited to see what happens next week. We've heard so much about the improvement in size and strength, all the gains made by so many, all that noise. They should be a much better equipped football team to handle the rigors of the PAC-10. Look for some first-hand coverage of fall camp from our own Longball in the weeks ahead. Here's hoping for a productive, HEALTHY, high-energy month of practices, and a mentally and physically prepared football team ready to hit Stanford with all they have on 9/5.

Enjoy your day, and GO COUGS!

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good god do I miss having a defense with an attitude! It was not that long ago that they would hit people in the mouth and stand there with anyone. The lack of sacks and turnovers is alarming. Bring back Doba?

Portland Coug said...

Good job but I am pretty concerned about the cornerbacks. Just a bunch of pups behind Justin and Jones. The taking of Pellum 1-2-3 (pee-u, bad joke) and Giles with the grade trouble has left them ultra thin. But Hawkins is right on the not-so pass happy pac-10. It sure isn't what it used to be so maybe they will be ok.

Anonymous said...

This spring, Kyle McCartney #37, now #39, was used heavily due to the illnesses, grades and other issues of some members of the Secondary. I was at two scrimmages and noticed he was making good plays at Safety. He may be in the mix this season.

Hooty McBoob said...

Bruce Feldman at ESPN.com ranked his top-10 NCAA RB's.

#1 - Best (Cal)
#3 - Rodgers (OSU)
#6 - Blount (UO)
Just missed the cut: Gerhart (Stan), McKnight (USC)

Based on last year's performance, you have to belive that teams will try to beat us on the ground first.

Sean Hawkins said...

Good call on Mccartney. I remember hearing some of the same things. It looks like he may be a little buried on the depth chart, but who the heck knows what that thing will look like by the end of August! And if Chima does have to slide to corner, there could be a spot there. We'll see!

And man do I miss the chip-on-shoulder defense as well. It is astonishing to see how good and aggressive that group was during our best-ever run. We can all talk about Gesser or Kegel during that run, but wow was the defense good! In fact, from 01-03, we might have had an even better run than the Palouse Posse from 92-94 in terms of the total defensive package. It would be exciting if we were on the cusp of another run like that, with all these young faces throughout the defense.

'03CouveCoug said...

Ahhhhhhh….love the picture of Robert De Niro aka Jimmy Conway! Do you think that Jimmy would say of our 2008 Cougs that the opposition “Whacked ‘em…they fu*kin’ whacked ‘em.”?

In all honesty, I’m not really worried about the safeties. If Hicks and Nwachukwu can stay relatively healthy, I feel really good about them patrolling the deep middle. I think they’re good for more than a few takeaways in coverage. Plus, it sounds like there is some young talent behind them. Now, the corners are a whole ‘nother story.

Justin showed some good coverage skills in his limited time last year (even defended Dez Bryant well in the opener last year vs. Okey St….too bad Dez is about 5 inches taller and beat him on all of those jump-balls). Who knows what Jones will be able to do after a year off, but the fact that he saw action in all 12 games as a true sophomore at Cal should tell ya something. However, if anything happens to these two and we have to rely on the youngsters…GULP! I’m high on Simmons and Washington, but not that high. We may have to go against Coaches Ball and Sears’ philosophy and sit back in a lot of deep zones. If that’s the case, it means no pressure on the opposing QB or running game and 2008 redo. Yikes.

This is an extremely important group. If we can stay aggressive in the secondary, we may actually be able to stuff the run by dedicating the front 7 to the immediate 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Let’s all hope that our corners are up to the challenge in terms of aggressive man-to-man D and our safeties can stay healthy in order to deliver some blasts over the middle.

I sure hope this group matures quickly!

Sean Hawkins said...

I was wondering if anyone would get that. The scene where Jimmy gets the news that Tommy's gone, there's nothing they can do about it? Stretch, but any excuse to use something/anything from Goodfellas!

I am truly hoping the defensive front can help mask any deficiency or lack of depth in the secondary. We're going to learn a LOT early on too.