By Jacob Thorpe
PULLMAN — Classes haven’t even started at Washington State and the freshmen members of the Cougars’ defensive backfield are already feeling a bit overwhelmed with how much studying college requires.
Pat Porter and Sulaiman Hameed are likely to see the field just days after taking their first college class, while freshman Marcellus Pippins and second-year players Isaac Dotson and Darius Lemora aren’t exactly grizzled vets.
“They’re brain-dead right now. They’ve overcooked,” defensive coordinator Mike Breske said. “We’ve thrown a lot at them and now we begin the process of just — to tear them down, so the kids can play fast. As a freshman, it’s unique to them.”
Breske has his young charges on an accelerated learning curve, studying hard and knowing that their first test, Rutgers, will be pass-fail. As in, allow too many passes and you fail.
Currently, they major in Film Appreciation 101.
“It’s really film study,” Porter said. “Film study and just stay grounded because most freshmen don’t really have a shot to come in and play early.”
The urgency stems from the loss of three defensive starters whose contributions were invaluable last season. At cornerback, the Cougars lost Nolan Washington, who made 31 career starts. They also lost Damante Horton, whose three interceptions returned for touchdowns were critical in wins over USC and Utah.
Deone Bucannon, strong safety and first-round NFL draft pick by the Arizona Cardinals, was a menace to opposing receivers, who will likely be a little less reluctant to challenge the Cougars in the middle of the field now that the enforcer is gone.
Those familiar names are gone, replaced by ones the casual fan has never heard of because the player likely either spent last season redshirting or in high school.
Taylor Taliulu is the dean of the defensive backs with 12 starts in his two seasons. Cornerback Daquawn Brown made four starts in 2013 and is the best playmaker in the secondary.
With 10 starting quarterbacks returning in the Pac-12, many of whom are NFL prospects, good secondary play will be critical to every team’s success. What the Cougars don’t have in experience in the secondary they make up for in numbers, and as such the cornerback position opposite Daquawn Brown has been a revolving door of players getting a shot to prove themselves, as has the strong safety position.
The hope is that the competition will create a rising tide, or at least raise the game of one player.
It appears that Tracy Clark is the favorite to start at cornerback, but even he is relatively inexperienced in game situations with just seven career tackles. But he’s also played significantly better in spring and fall practices than he’d previously shown.
“Going into the bowl game I felt like I had to work harder and go into the offseason,” Clark said. “It started there, had a great spring. Just working really hard and then being consistent in the summer.”
Even if they do not start, Porter and Pippins have been receiving reps in practice with the twos and occasionally the first string and figure to be often-used members of the depth.
At safety, sophomore Isaac Dotson appeared to be the successor to Bucannon, but injuries caused him to miss a lot of time in the spring and the fall, and he has only just resumed practicing without limitations. His loss has been redshirt freshman Darius Lemora’s gain. Lemora could start and will certainly see plenty of snaps.
Hameed is also in the mix at safety.
“Honestly, I don’t take it as a surprise. It’s just me trying to get more reps and me trying to understand what’s in front of me,” Lemora said. “Understand routes, understand our plays, understand calls, and honestly it’s a blessing for me to even be out there with my brothers and my teammates, and I’m happy that coach Breske is giving me the chance to show what I have.”
If those young players can buoy WSU, or at least limit mistakes so as not to hurt it, then the entire defense could be vastly improved this season. But if matching up with the Pac-12’s elite passers this early is asking too much then the Cougars will learn the hard way.