Washington State returns all four starters from last year’s defensive backfield, but as defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Mike Breske pointed out, that means little in terms of the level of experience this year’s starting group will bring onto the field.
“It depends on who is playing — who’s back there with (Deone) Bucannon and maybe (cornerback Damante) Horton,” Breske said. “I don’t think that’s a big issue at all. Whoever we put in there, as coaches, we feel will be ready to go otherwise they wouldn’t be in there.”
So far, Breske said, only one returning starter has earned back his spot.
“There is one starter set at the safety position — and that’s Bucannon. The other safety spot is wide open. We’re competing for that,” Breske said. ‘We’ve got competition going at the corner position.”
Bucannon, who was second on the team in tackles last season with 80, has picked up the defense and its terminology quickly this fall. That’s allowed him to fly to the ball or to his spot instinctually, rather than thinking on the field.
“He wants to succeed, will succeed and will be successful in whatever he wants to do in his life,” Breske said. “He’s playing at a high speed right now.”
That has been the biggest factor in earning a starting spot this fall — learning how to play a position in a new 3-4 defense.
“It definitely changed a lot,” safety Tyree Toomer said. “Some of the concepts are similar, but there are a lot more things we need to know and be aware of, as far as the checks we need to make — this blitz is coming here, or the coverage we need to be in depending on the stunts we run.”
While Breske was hesitant to name Horton a starter this week, his position as the team’s No. 1 corner appears all but locked up.
“I don’t take it personally,” Horton said. “I just want to keep working. Last year, I worked hard. If I keep working hard and keep working with (my coaches), I expect the same results.”
The soft-spoken Horton, an All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection last year, tied for the conference lead with four interceptions a season ago and has continued that level of impact in fall camp.
“He’s had a great camp — that type of deal, but we want to just keep stressing the corners, which this camp is doing with coach (Leach’s) philosophy on offense,” Breske said.
Try telling that to Simmons, who started seven games last season.
“In my eyes, I don’t feel like anybody is better than me. That’s really the mentality a player should have, especially at cornerback,” he said. “A lot of swagger and confidence comes with this position, so that’s where my mind is at.”
Simmons appears to be the leader, but a lack of consistency has plagued all the cornerbacks this fall, meaning the position could remain in flux until the start of the season.
Toomer, the lone returnee in the backfield to start all 12 games, finds himself in the tightest battle for a starting job at the other safety position, but said he expects nothing less from a new coaching staff.
“Every year, you’ve got to battle for your position,” Toomer said. “I never go into a year thinking I have a starting position on lock. You have to prove yourself every year and earn that spot. Once you think you have it on lock, that’s when somebody can beat you out.”
That’s especially the case this season, as big-hitter Anthony Carpenter — who was a staple on special teams last year — has rounded out his game.
“Camp is always intense, but this year there is a little more riding on it,” Carpenter said. “I bring speed, other than my hitting, and quickness. I’m not a loud rah-rah guy, but I can be a good leader.”
The ability to lead is an attribute of many of the players fighting for jobs.
“We have to step up. We’re the most experienced position on the defense, so it’s up to us to lead the defense out there and set the tone,” Toomer said. “We have to get that swagger to us and be the baddest secondary in the Pac-12.”
Becoming a secondary-to-be-feared has been one of the major threads of Breske’s teaching this fall. It’s a change the secondary has taken to heart.
“We changed our whole mentality at practice,” Toomer said. “We want to get turnovers every day, as many as we can. We want to force the offense to make mistakes, make bad decisions, so we can make plays that benefit off it.”
No matter who wins the starting spots, Simmons said speed and aggression will be the qualities that define them.
“That’s definitely the emphasis — come out and just go 100 miles an hour,” he said.
Follow Andrew Nemec on Twitter @AndrewNemec.