- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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Washington State’s (very) youthful secondary is about to get a lesson in what defensive coordinator Mike Breske calls “sweat equity.” While some coaches opt to recruit a few junior college players as stop-gaps to fill holes, the Cougars’ staff believes in throwing youngsters into the fire to see who can play and who can’t.
And things are getting toasty in Pullman.
Taylor Taliulu, who started 10 games a year ago, seems to have a hold on the free safety job, but with three of the four starting spots up for grabs (both cornerback spots and strong safety), Washington State will present an intriguing defensive mix when the 2014 season rolls around. Though not senior-heavy, there is some experience in the front seven. Contrast that with a lot of inexperience in the secondary and you have a defensive coordinator who is both excited for the potential and cautious with his expectations.
“It’s going to be an interesting group,” Breske said. “They’ll grow up together and hopefully we’ll see them get better week after week.”
When scanning the side-by-side statistical comparisons from Washington State’s defense in 2013 vs. 2012, it’s clear the Cougars got better … mostly.
Aside from reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2003 -- the most obvious sign of improvement (after all, this game is about wins) -- the Cougars improved in average points allowed last year, though not by much: 32.5 points per game in 2013 to 33.7 in 2012. Not exactly a huge jump. The Cougars also had more interceptions, but fewer sacks; more first downs allowed, but significantly better third-down defense.
“I think it was a roller-coaster year for us,” Breske said. “We showed some good signs, and then again, I don’t think we played to our ability.”
Stats rarely paint a complete picture. For example, the Cougars gave up more passing and rushing yards in 2013 than they did in 2012. But when it mattered most -- inside the red zone -- Washington State’s defense buckled down and was one of the best in the Pac-12. The Cougars tied for third with Oregon in red-zone defense behind USC and Stanford. In 2012, the Cougars were last in the league.
“That’s our emphasis,” Breske said. “We win with field goals, we lose with touchdowns. We’re not wrapped up in total yards and passing and that type of deal. Tackles for a loss, sacks, takeaways, explosive plays, those are the major things. We want to get off the field, get our ‘O’ on the field and watch a little Air Raid.”
Last season the Cougars forced 30 turnovers -- the most since 2006 and second in the conference. They were still minus-5 in turnover ratio, 10th in the league, but that comes in large part to 24 interceptions from the offense. They also posted their first shutout since 2003.
While there’s a lot of inexperience in the secondary, the front seven returns a group that got quality reps in 2013. Linebackers Darryl Monroe and Cyrus Coen are back after posting 94 and 60 tackles, respectively. Xavier Cooper returns his team-high five sacks from last season and Tana Pritchard pitched in 4.5 tackles for a loss.
“It’s great experience when you compare it to what we have on the back end,” Breske said. “We’re still not where we need to be in our numbers. For whatever reason, guys leave or quit and you never really have that full complement. Twenty years ago, a guy came, he stayed and he’d contribute to whatever degree. Nowadays, my jersey isn’t getting dirty, I’m out of here.”
During the 15 spring practices, Breske said the Cougars will be putting an extra emphasis on tackling. Missed tackles, more than anything, is what led to the extra yards allowed in 2013.
“Good tackling lends itself to cutting down those stats,” he said. “We have to do a better job of the first man there making a play. When you look at the cut-ups, you can see we just need to take one more step. That’s a huge focus for us this spring and an area we really need to improve.”