WSU Pre-Spring Glance, Safeties

Greetings Cougs.  And yes, THIS IS IT for the pre-spring previews(yay!), as we look at the WSU safeties.  As you’ll see in a moment, there are some decent options back in the last line of defense.

But first, even though this isn’t a hoops blog, it probably should be said……congrats to UW (I know, I know).  They were firmly on the bubble but instead of waiting around and getting ready to flood local talk radio about how life wasn’t fair if they got the snub, well, instead they went out and grabbed it.  Good for them.  Now they can go prance around flashing signs and popping their jerseys for a national TV audience…..

But getting invited to the dance is one thing, whether or not they survive the first weekend is quite another.  Judging by the bracket, getting through the first weekend is going to be tough, with Marquette and then probably Steve Alford’s New Mexico Lobos waiting for them, but UW is a hot basketball team right now.  Get into the tourney, and anything can happen.  For now, they celebrate the fact that they had the path laid out in front of them and they did their part.  I mean isn’t that what we all hope for, in pretty much every walk of life?  Give us a path, a road map if you will, towards your goal, and if you do the things you need to do, you will achieve said goal?  So again, good for them.

Kind of amazing when you look at the turning point for UW, as it’s really about the same point in time for WSU.  After the time the two teams first met in Seattle back on January 30th, WSU would go just 2-8 the rest of the way, including a first-round Pac-10 tourney “play in” game.  Meanwhile UW would go 9-2 from that point forward, including the tourney title!  Weird.

Meanwhile, the WSU hoops season is over, finished, kaput.  Turns out they aren’t interested in extending the year in whatever post-season tourney might have invited them, as coach Bone thought not continuing on was “best for the team”.  As Grippi speculated in his post yesterday, money and the taxing nature of a long season must have added up to the decision to say no.  Too bad, as maybe as a fan it would be good to see the youngsters get another chance to practice and experience a tourney-like setting, but to each his own I guess.

Anyway, the safety position.  You know, it’s been a pretty damn good position at WSU, going back to the Mobley-Rushing combination from that nasty ’94 Palouse Posse defense. 

But there have been some real gamebreakers at the position since then, guys like Lamont Thompson, Billy Newman, Erik Coleman, Eric Frampton, etc.  Good All-Pac-10 players, some of whom enjoyed an NFL paycheck or two as well, and overall, guys who helped set the tone for the secondary. 

I think of the safety position, whether strong or free safety, and I think of them as your leader of the defensive backfield.  Think of the Steelers and that defense with Troy Polamanu…..then think of them without Polamanu.  Big difference isn’t it?  You need that guy who can run, hit and most of all keep things under control back there! 

Of the most recent WSU safeties, Lamont Thompson has to be the best of the best, doesn’t he? 

I still remember the start of his career at WSU, where he led the Pac-10 in INT’s, even though he started just four games that year.  He was big-time late in the season as well, picking off FIVE passes the last two games – two vs. Stanford and then the whopper, three vs. UW in that amazing ’97 Apple Cup.  You knew then he was going to be something special.  But his career stats, wow: 

  • 24 career INT’s, #1 all-time at WSU and at the top of the list in the Pac-10. 
  • 10 INT’s in 2001, still a school record. 
  • 23 passes defended in 2001, again, a school record.

What a player!  The Cougar D could sure use an impact-type presence like that again, couldn’t they?  So is there another Lamont, waiting to break through?  Will spring ball tell us anything about the future?  Read on for more…..

Projected Pre-Spring Starters:
Strong Safety:  Chima Nwachukwu (SR), 5-11, 201:  Hard to believe he will already be a senior, Chima has been starting games since his first year in Pullman.  He’s been pretty much a “floater” too, starting at corner his frosh year, and making a bunch of starts between strong safety and free safety over the last couple of seasons.  He started eight games last year, the first two at corner and then the last six at free safety, then was banged up late in the year with a bad ankle and missed the last few games.  We’ll go with him as the starting strong safety for pre-spring practice purposes, but I guess he could start at free safety as well, depending on how things develop this spring?

The top tackler in the secondary returning for this year (Xavier Hicks led the secondary in tackles last year), Chima logged 57 stops, recovered two fumbles and picked off one pass.  Not bad, but not exactly the superstar either if you want to know the truth.  To me, Chima is your jack-of-all-trades guy who can play any position in the secondary.  He’s above average, even pretty good at most things, but he’s not GREAT at any one thing.  Think about it – he can run, but he’s not a burner.  He can tackle, but he’s not a tackle machine, nor his he known as a big-time hitter.  He isn’t what you would call a “ball hawk” back there either, just three career interceptions coming into his last year of eligibility.  Just a good, smart, steady all-around player you like having in your secondary.

Free Safety: Leandre Daniels (RS-Soph), 6-2, 202:  A LOT of people are high on Daniels, especially coach Wulff, who started the frosh for the first two games of the season at free safety vs. Stanford and Hawaii.  Unfortunately, Daniels had his season end at that point, going down with a broken leg vs. the Warriors and that was that.  In his two starts, Daniels flashed some ability, with seven total tackles in his first shot at playing time as a redshirt frosh.  An excellent athlete who was all-league as a linebacker and wide receiver in high school, Daniels has the size and tackling ability to be a potential game-changer as he gains experience. 

Daniels should be ready to go this spring, 100% after the healing from the broken leg.  But even though backups like Jay Matthews actually played more in ’09, given the fact that Daniels was a starter when the season began, we’ll go with him as the starter – for now.  This is all pre-spring of course!

Backups:

Jay Matthews(RS Soph), 6-1, 207:  Played in eight games as a redshirt frosh last year, starting two of them when Chima was out with an ankle injury late in the season.  Recorded 13 tackles on the year and broke up a pass, but that was all in fairly limited time until the very end of the season.  Had a season-high five tackles vs. Arizona, then the next week vs. UCLA received the “big hit” award from the team for a shot delivered vs. the Bruins. 

Matthews was big-time in Oregon as a high-schooler, 1st team all-league on offense and defense as a senior, as well as 1st-team all-state as a safety, and rated as the #1 defensive back in the state by Scout.com.  He probably isn’t as talented as some other names you are about to see, but, he’s got some decent experience under his belt and will LIKELY open up spring ball as one of the top backups.  How that goes the rest of the way, we’ll have to see, but there will be a lot of competition from some of the other young players on the roster. 

Tyree Toomer (RS Soph), 5-11, 194:  Missed all of 2009 with a torn pec muscle and was redshirted, but is back and ready to go this spring.  Started four games as a true frosh in ’08, recording an impressive 34 tackles, four for loss and even a couple of sacks.  He closed the ’08 season with 12 tackles and two sacks over his last two games vs. UW and Hawaii.  A good athlete who lettered in track as well as football in high school, he will at the very least compete with Matthews for top backup honors, and should push for a lot of playing time.     

Jamal Atofau (RS Frosh), 5-10, 185:  Hyped redshirt who isn’t the biggest guy around, but can run and play a physical brand of safety.  Seattle P-I defensive player of the year in 3A at Bellevue in ’08, he also played some wide receiver in high school.  But defense is without a doubt where he belongs.  He’ll probably end up at strong safety given his tackling ability, and will be right in there with Toomer and Matthews for playing time.

Casey Locker (RS Frosh), 5-11, 175:  Fast cousin of you-know-who, reportedly runs in the sub-4.4 40-range and is surprisingly strong with a 325 bench, 400 squat as a high school senior.  A really good athlete, winning varsity letters in baseball and basketball in high school, Locker is a guy whom Wulff has been quoted as saying is a “player who will have an impact” at WSU.  With his speed and athleticism, will likely end up as a free safety. 

Kyle McCartney (RS Soph), 6-0, 192):  Played a lot as a backup last year, appearing in nine games and recording eight tackles.  Didn’t start any games but did an OK job off the bench.  Good all-around athlete who played QB and defensive back in high school, he should be a decent option in terms of depth. 

Notes (in the ever popular dot-dot-dot format): Similar to the cornerback situation, there is a decent amount of depth, but it’s young, young, young….Of all the safeties listed, I am excited/interested to hear reports on LeAndre Daniels.  He may be the most physically gifted of all the players in the safety mix in terms of size and physical prowess, and could give the secondary a real identity.  I don’t know if he’ll stay at free safety as time goes on, as he may grow into a real hammer of a strong safety (or maybe even an outside linebacker??).  Who knows, maybe after spring and fall camp, he’ll switch with Chima and become the starter at strong safety?  But I will be paying close attention to reports on him this spring…..I can’t wait to see Toomer back on the field.  It’s easy to forget but he really did come on strong at the close of ’08, and could have had a breakthrough-type year in ’09 before the pec injury….Atofau and Locker give the defense a real upgrade in speed.  Wulff has said many times that both kids “play really fast” and should fly to the football, something that has been a big need in recent years.  While they are young, and with youth comes the mistakes of immaturity on the field, at least they have the physical skill-set to compete as Pac-10 players….While Matthews might get passed on the depth chart as some of these young athletes show their stuff, still, it’s a good thing to know that he is there for depth purposes.  Injuries are just part of the game, so to have an able, experienced player back there who can come off the bench and fill in is something we haven’t seen in some time…..The battle among the backups is going to be intriguing, and the efforts this spring should set the stage for tough, competitive fall camp!

You can see all our pre-spring previews – in EIGHT parts including today’s safety glance – here for QB’s, here for running backs,  here for WR’shere for O-line and tight ends, here for linebackers,  here for a glance at the defensive line, and here for the corners.

All for now.  Enjoy your SPRING FORWARD Monday (yawn), and GO COUGS! 

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