The Daily Evergreen

A look at who will be leading Cougars in 2018: Part 4

Depth at linebacker raises questions about who will see field most

Redshirt+sophomore+linebackers+Jahad+Woods%2C+left%2C+and+Dillon+Sherman+practice+tackling+techniques+during+spring+practice+April+3.
Redshirt sophomore linebackers Jahad Woods, left, and Dillon Sherman practice tackling techniques during spring practice April 3.

Redshirt sophomore linebackers Jahad Woods, left, and Dillon Sherman practice tackling techniques during spring practice April 3.

EZEKIEL NELSON | DAIL EVERGREEN FILE

EZEKIEL NELSON | DAIL EVERGREEN FILE

Redshirt sophomore linebackers Jahad Woods, left, and Dillon Sherman practice tackling techniques during spring practice April 3.

JACKSON GARDNER, Evergreen columnist

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As the Cougars advance toward their 11th spring practice, the secondary and linebacker position groups are presumably a bit more solidified than the rest.

These two groups bring back a great deal of experience from 2017, but like any position in football, it’s not just a one-man job. The football programs with the most success are the ones that provide plenty of depth, even in positions that have a clear-cut starter.

Not to mention, with the physical nature of the game, good health for an entire season is not even close to guaranteed. The Cougars know this all too well from the 2017 campaign, where they ran out their third and even fourth string linebacker from the initial starting lineup and still started 6-0.

It just goes to show that the opening-day depth chart will never look quite the same by the end of a grueling season.

Linebackers

The misfortune of last season will bring some prosperity for the WSU linebackers in 2018. Graduate student linebacker Peyton Pelluer, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility and medical redshirt after his season was cut short last year, will lead the backers.

Behind him is a younger group of backers who gained experience due to injuries in 2017.

The Cougars’ trio of redshirt sophomore linebackers — Jahad Woods, Justus Rogers and Dillon Sherman — played in all 13 games of their redshirt freshman season.

This begs the question, what will the linebacker rotation look like if there aren’t as many injuries in 2018?

The answer remains unclear, but here are a couple things we know.

Pelluer will start at middle linebacker. This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s a closer call than one would think.

When Woods took over the middle linebacker position almost seamlessly after Pelluer and then-redshirt senior linebacker Nate DeRider went down last season, Cougar fans thought they didn’t have to worry about their next middle linebacker with the way the redshirt freshman performed.

Now the Cougars have two natural middle linebackers, but one will be forced to play weak-side linebacker.

This will presumably be Woods. He has been taking reps alongside Pelluer at the weak-side position all spring and has familiarity with the spot.

While Woods possesses the speed required to cover the weak side of the defense in the run-game, he isn’t as savvy in pass coverage.

This is where Rogers could make his biggest impact in 2018. The versatility he brings in the passing game gives him a leg up on Woods in passing situations.

Sherman is a high-energy linebacker who looks a lot like a younger Pelluer, and will most likely be his second stringer. However, Sherman has himself in a tough position to find consistent playing time if everyone stays healthy.

Verdict: Pelluer will start at middle linebacker alongside Woods at weak-side backer with Rogers as his replacement for obvious passing situations.

Secondary

The secondary has two glaring question marks that haven’t been answered, and most likely won’t be until the fall.

The first is between senior defensive back Sean Harper Jr. and senior cornerback Darrien Molton, who are fighting for only one starting spot alongside junior defensive back Marcus Strong.

Whenever a team comes across an issue like this, it is typically classified as a good problem to have. If the two starting spots were given based off last season’s performances, Harper and Strong would claim the two spots.

But in reality, the title of starter at the cornerback position is more of a formality. More cornerbacks besides these three will see the field.

Sophomore cornerback George Hicks III will likely be fourth on the pecking order. Hicks played in an incredibly limited role his freshman year, but when he was on the field, he made an impact.

In just six games of minimal playing time, the freshman forced a fumble, deflected a pass and tallied five unassisted tackles.

The next question: who will line up at free safety next to junior strong safety Jalen Thompson this season?

My head tells me it will be either redshirt sophomore defensive back Skyler Thomas or redshirt junior cornerback Deion Singleton, but my heart tells me it will be redshirt sophomore defensive back Dylan Axelson.

Before we go any farther, just forget that Axelson is a walk-on, because he can go toe-to-toe with any player who is on scholarship.

Thomas is a smaller safety who fares better when he sits back and plays centerfield, where he can use his speed to break up passes.

Singleton, who looks like a prototypical cornerback but has spent time at free safety, is much the opposite of Thomas. While he doesn’t have the same speed as Thomas, his size can be more effective when breaking up deep passes.

Finally, there is Axelson. He might be the dark horse to win the starting free safety gig, but regardless, there will be a spot for him on the field.

He may not be on par in pass coverage, where he lacks the straight-line speed, he makes up for being naturally strong and looked nothing short of a scholarship athlete this spring.

Verdict: Strong and Sean Harper Jr. are the starters at cornerback. Thompson will fill the strong safety position, accompanied by Thomas and Axelson at free safety.

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A look at who will be leading Cougars in 2018: Part 4