Shakeup in the Cougs depth chart

Pete Caster/For the Daily NewsWashington State safety Skyler Thomas (25), linebacker Justus Rogers (37) and cornerback Marcus Strong (4) celebrate after Thomas’s interception in the second quarter of a Pac-12 Conference game Sept. 21 at Martin Stadium in Pullman.

During preseason camp, Tracy Claeys referred to the Washington State defensive depth chart — or at least some private version of it — as “a living document,” meaning it’s constantly in flux.

In the aftermath of Claeys’ departure, that’s never been more true.

If the depth chart released publicly this week proves accurate, three WSU defenders are changing positions, two others are claiming starting roles and another is climbing into a backup spot.

The apparent shakeup comes after back-to-back dismal defensive performances and the subsequent resignation of Claeys, who had been defensive coordinator since the start of the Cougars’ banner 2018 season.

Linebackers coach Roc Bellantoni will make his debut as interim defensive coordinator when Washington State (3-2, 0-2) plays No. 18 Arizona State (4-1, 1-1) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Tempe, Ariz. (Pac-12 Network).

Of the possible position changes, the most significant is that of junior-college transfer Daniel Isom. In the preseason, Claeys declared in definitive tones his intention of using Isom at safety, probably for depth reasons, and the fleet-footed junior has indeed started there all five games. Now he’s listed as a No. 1 cornerback, a position he’s more familiar with.

“I’m really a corner — or I was playing corner,” Isom said in August. “But when they asked me to move to safety, it was no problem. I just wanted to be able to help the team out. I played corner pretty much since my junior year of high school.”

Another prominent player whose role could be changing is Skyler Thomas, who started at safety last season but was moved in the spring to nickelback. Even after losing star safety Jalen Thompson to an NCAA violation during the summer, coach Mike Leach and others were inclined to keep Thomas at nickel. This week he’s listed as the No. 1 strong safety.

“Skyler’s a guy you want to be able to pull the trigger (with), and just get to where he’s going fast, you know,” Leach said after Tuesday’s practice.

Making his starting debut at nickel, according to the depth chart, is second-year freshman Pat Nunn, whose playing time has increased in recent games. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds — larger than Thomas — he might be able to bolster run support.

“He’s a guy that’s really talented,” Leach said, “and then as he gets more locked in mentally, he gets better and better.”

The third possible position change involves sophomore Armani Marsh, who’d been named starting cornerback for the season opener, played there as a backup the next four games and now is listed as the No. 2 nickelback.

Up front, the biggest change comes at nose tackle, where 6-6, 285-pound sophomore Dallas Hobbs is projected to make his first start, replacing Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei. Another mover and shaker, true freshman Cosmas Kwete, has risen to No. 2 at defensive end.

The Cougars had a bye last week, so they’ve had time to tinker with these options. Of course, that’s doesn’t mean they’ll come to pass. If the depth chart’s a living document, that means it’s not gospel.

JUMPING THE GUN — Not all the Cougars’ problems in a 38-13 loss Sept. 28 at Utah came on defense. One issue Leach found frustrating was repeated offensive-line penalties, including three false starts on Liam Ryan, whose mostly smooth conversion from left guard to left tackle this year has been much praised.

On one drive midway through the second half, Ryan was flagged for two false starts and a hold. The Cougars wound up turning the ball over on downs at the Utah 3-yard line.

“It’s pathetic,” Leach said of the O-line penalties. “It’s just a lack of discipline. We, as coaches, we’ve got to lean on them harder and get it out of them. It’s just concentration.”

MAZZA’S STRONG START — Bright spots were hard to find after the Utah game, but one that stood out was Blake Mazza’s career-long 51-yard field goal.

The sophomore is 7-for-7 in field goals this season and 29-for-29 in point-after conversion kicks. The second-year starter seems more decisive this year and in better sync with the rest of the field-goal unit.

“He’s kicking better,” Leach said. “I think he’s got more range, a little more precise.”

Dale Grummert may be contacted at daleg@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2290.

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