WSU Cougars

Cougars finally have reason to celebrate their secondary

Washington State cornerback Marcellus Pippins (27) celebrates after making an interception against California during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Berkeley, Calif.
Washington State cornerback Marcellus Pippins (27) celebrates after making an interception against California during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Berkeley, Calif. AP

For the most overtly sociable guy on the team, Marcellus Pippins sure is a loner.

There’s Pippins again, standing by himself on the sideline. While the rest of Washington State’s substituted players always hang out on one sideline before waiting to go back in the game, one of the two cornerbacks will always step off to recuperate on the far sideline.

It’s a lonely life befitting the position that is always on an island. Most of the action during any given football play happens in a fairly confined space near the middle of the football field. The cornerbacks stay on the field’s fringes, charged with preventing the biggest plays.

“It’s just me and the receiver at the end of the day,” Pippins said. “You’ve got 10 other guys, but you’re also all by yourself. You have to have your own swagger on the island. Whoever comes to the island’s going to get what’s coming to them.”

Maybe that’s how Pippins developed his voice. He’s been the defensive backfield’s de facto spokesperson for a couple of years now whether on social media or shouting instructions from his spot on the far sideline.

He has to make himself heard somehow when he’s away from the action.

“I’m more of the just out-there, loud, all-over-the-place kind of guys,” Pippins said. “When we go out I keep everyone kind of glued in. They always come to me to ask where the parties are.”

The Cougars finally have a reason to celebrate their secondary, although just how deep WSU is at either cornerback or safety is a matter of some dispute. Darrien Molton, a freshman All-American last season, is a sure bet to start at one cornerback spot.

Treshon Broughton is currently starting on the right side, although he is receiving a strong challenge from Robert Taylor, a junior college transfer who is likely to only get better as the defense becomes second nature.

But Taylor, like teammate Charleston White, has been seeing time at both safety and cornerback. He is perhaps even more likely to settle at safety following the arrest of starting free safety Shalom Luani early Wednesday morning.

Ultimately, position seems of little importance to defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who just wants the best 11 defenders on the football field. Safety is a more complex position because the strong safety is asked to determine the offense’s strong side, and both safety positions call out preplay instructions to the rest of the defense.

Cornerback is a mentally easier, more reactive position. Grinch just wants a lot of guys who can do it all. He’s one of those guys who is not so into labels.

“We’re not opposed to having sub packages with nickels, dimes,” Grinch said. “We’ve kind of leaned in one direction so far but that doesn’t mean we have to continue that way. Ultimately, just trying to find that core group of guys we trust who can help.”

Luani’s free safety spot may be up for grabs depending on the fallout from his arrest, but true freshman Jalen Thompson appears to be entrenched as the starter at strong safety.

Thompson won the spot halfway through spring practices after graduating from high school early so he could enroll for the 2016 spring semester. He survived challenges from Taylor and White in preseason camp, and is already one of the team’s more consistent playmakers. For such a young player, he makes few mistakes and has contributed more big hits and interceptions than most of his counterparts.

He’s fit right in with a group of defensive backs that, more than anything else, seems to have become a more physical bunch over the offseason. While Molton and Broughton may not have the size to take on a power back like Oregon’s Royce Freeman all by themselves, they have been some of WSU’s most willing tacklers during camp, even if that just means shoving a bigger player out of bounds or holding him until help can arrive.

“We talk to those guys about (having to) outphysical the guys across from them, whether it’s the receiver across from them or attacking the ball-carrier,” Grinch said. “When you’re not taking guys to the ground, the idea of a low tackle maybe isn’t there as an undersized defensive back. So you have to chest-up a guy and it’s good for you from a toughness, physical standpoint.”

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