As a slightly fidgety, youthful-looking man sat in front of the camera and waited for a Zoom news conference to begin, some of his viewers possibly didn’t know who this was.
A quality-control coach? A video technician?
Then the sound came on and the moderator introduced him as Jake Dickert, the new defensive coordinator. Any doubts about the veracity of this statement were quickly quelled as the fellow stopped fidgeting and began speaking.
He talked about buy-in and effort and playing together. He talked about “stacking practices.” He exhumed an age-old military axiom about “cutting the head off the snake.” He seemed the essence of a defensive coordinator.
Once again, the Washington State football program is trying to rejuvenate its often problematic defense, and the young man they’ve chosen to lead this effort wants to work from the ground up.
“It’s a reprogramming,” Dickert said during that 14-minute session Thursday in Pullman. “We’ve taken everything and wiped it clean. It’s back to Day 1: This is how we tackle, this is how we focus in walk-throughs, this is how we are in meetings. So we started all the way back from jump street.”
In the timetable of college football, jump street is easier to find in April than October. Hence a central dilemma for the Cougars, who are trying to introduce new offensive and defensive systems in the midst of a pandemic that wiped out spring drills and delayed preseason workouts by two months.
Parenthetically, the pandemic also has prevented local media from attending practices, seeing Dickert’s handiwork or even, until Thursday, getting an extended glimpse of him. In the post-practice session, he was filling in for new head coach Nick Rolovich, who’d been whisked away for his weekly radio show.
The Cougars learned in September their on-again, off-again season would indeed be played out, in the form of an extremely late seven-game schedule. They staged their seventh preseason practice Friday in preparation for the Nov. 7 opener at Oregon State, and they will stage their first and possibly only scrimmage today, again with no media or fans present.
At 37, Dickert appears to be the third-youngest member of Rolovich’s primary coaching staff (the school bios don’t include ages), and his hands-on, exhortative coaching style is said to be reminiscent of Alex Grinch, who five years ago took the reins of the Wazzu defense at age 35.
Like Grinch, he seems fond of slogans and aphorisms. Perhaps out of an instinct for inclusion, he often punctuates a clause with the interjection “right?” as in “We’re just excited with the way our guys have gravitated to our message, right?”
Grinch quickly directed a defensive turnaround at Wazzu but scrammed after three seasons, and last year the Cougars displayed scant evidence of his influence in allowing opponents 452 yards per game.
Given that backtracking, one wonders how much progress Dickert realistically can expect during this makeshift season.
“In a lot of different situations (in practice), we’re probably behind where the offense has been, and that’s OK,” he said. “We still have time to learn it. But we’ve got to boil things down. I think coach (Rolovich) has done it from the top down: I don’t care if we do just one thing, or two things. We’ve got to do those things really, really well throughout these seven games that we’re promised.”
Dickert comes to the Pac-12 after three seasons at Wyoming of the Mountain West Conference, including one year as defensive coordinator in 2019, when the Cowboys ranked sixth in the nation in red-zone defense.
That’s a big stat for Dickert, who noted Wazzu’s opponents in 2019 produced touchdowns 70 percent of the time they entered the red zone.
“Can’t do it,” he said. “We can bend but we can’t break.”
He also wants to reduce explosive plays, saying: “I put that on me, more than these guys, in the schemes we’re trying to implement. If we can make the offense earn everything they get, I think we’ve got enough playmakers to make things happen.”
Yet the first statistic he mentioned, when asked to express his goals in numerical form, was yards per carry.
“I want to have a physical mindset,” he said. “I want to play a certain way, the old mindset of cutting the head off a snake. We want to make these teams one-dimensional. When you start there, you can try to get guys behind the chains. You can pin your ears back. It opens up the call sheet a little bit more for a defensive coordinator.”
He’s ushering the Cougars away from the three-man front beloved of Grinch and installing a 4-2-5 base defense, converting WSU’s roving “rush linebackers” to edge rushers in three-point stances.
Players in recent days have described feeling more “free” in the new system, but they might be referring less to Xs and Os than to an attitude Dickert is trying to inculcate. He’s calling it “Code Cougs.”
“It’s a play-hard, it’s a play-fast, it’s a play-together mindset,” Dickert said. “When you’re willing to sacrifice more for the group than you are for yourself and your own satisfaction and your own reward, it’s something special, right? We want to play with more than effort than anybody in the country.”
Grummert may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (2080 848-2290.