For as long as Mike Leach has been coaching the Washington State Cougars, Parker Henry has been trying to win a smidgen of defensive playing time — fruitlessly, until now.
Shortly before the Cougars’ recent home game against Wyoming, the junior nickelback and special-teams fixture suddenly learned he would be the man at nickel. Not just playing, but starting.
“Definitely the first couple of possessions I was kind of tight out there,” he said this week. “But as the game went on, you just kind of sync in and you just get back to playing football, which I’ve been playing for as long as I can remember. Just fall back on your technique that the coaches have taught you. “
A former walk-on from Vancouver, Washington, who landed a scholarship last winter, Henry started in place of the injured Isaac Dotson in that Wyoming game two weeks ago and wound up making a tackle for loss during a pivotal juncture of a 31-14 win.
After a bye week, the Cougs (2-1, 0-0) plunge into Pac-12 play Saturday (1 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) at Berkeley, California, against the No. 24 California Bears (4-0, 1-0).
Dotson, despite his undisclosed injury, is listed as the starter at nickelback this week, but he wore a yellow no-contact jersey in practice Tuesday. So both Henry and another reserve at that position, true freshman Logan Tago, are preparing for possibly their first defensive action in a conference game.
Another option at that position, 10-game starter and seemingly healthy Darius Lemora, continues to lose ground in the depth chart for unknown reasons.
“He’s like everybody else, competing for playing time,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said Tuesday after practice.
Henry, though, seems on the rise. Nicknamed “Bulldog,” he walked on at WSU in 2012 and, after a redshirt year, has been toiling on special teams for two-plus seasons. Having lost an upper front tooth in a weightlifting mishap this past summer, he proudly displays a gap-tooth smile in his official head shot on the WSU website.
In a news conference Monday, however, Henry seemed to be sporting a full set of teeth, as well as a well-spoken manner that belied his lack of previous limelight.
His rousing defensive stop of Wyoming tailback Shaun Wick, on second-and-15 after the WSU offense had turned the ball over on downs in its own territory in the third quarter, came on a fortuitous blitz. Wick “ended up right in my lap,” said Henry, who made the tackle for a 6-yard loss.
ROAD SWEET ROAD
The Cougars have found themselves apologizing for their spotty home performances in recent seasons. But the problem wouldn’t be so striking if they didn’t show such surprising focus in road games, most recently in an upset win at Rutgers three weeks ago.
On Saturday, they'll be underdogs again (the mercurial spread for this game dipped to 10 1/2 points Tuesday) as they try to duplicate a victory at Berkeley in 2013.
“It’s fun to steal one from somebody’s house,” quarterback Luke Falk said. “They’ve got their fans out there — you’ve got to prove them wrong. It’s one of my favorite games, just being underdog on the road.”
It seems possible that the Cougars’ annual nine- or 10-day stay in Lewiston for preseason camp prepares them for the inconveniences and bonding opportunities of life on the road.
“We seem to be a more focused team (in road games), whether it’s the isolation or whatever,” Leach said. “We focus on ourselves in a better fashion. That’s the most important thing, because that’s all you can control. If you want to improve the team, improve yourself, focus on your job, that type of thing. And I think we’ve done a good job of that on the road.”
SATURDAY: WSU (2-1, 0-0 Pac-12) at Cal (4-0, 1-0), 1 p.m., Pac-12 Network, 710-AM