When examining possible flaws in his technique, Washington State offensive guard Josh Watson listens first and foremost to the observations of coaches.
But if a teammate expresses similar thoughts, he might perk up a bit.
“Oh, my teammates are starting to notice — I’m starting to let them down,” he thinks. “They’re getting PO’d at me. I’ve got to check my stuff.”
By the same token, Watson found it especially eye-opening when Wazzu players, before a team meeting during a turbulent bye last week, began critiquing the Cougars’ recent play.
Coaches weren’t around yet. The players who spoke weren’t necessarily the established leaders.
“Some guys that normally don’t get up, they kind of spoke what they felt to the team,” said Watson, who might be the Cougs’ most improved O-lineman this year, “and I thought there were some powerful speeches. Overall I think there’s a lot of leaders showing up, a lot of new faces that we haven’t really seen.”
Seemingly energized by a defensive coaching upheaval, the Cougars (3-2, 0-2) try to halt a two-game losing streak at 12:30 p.m. today when they play No. 18 Arizona State (4-1, 1-1) in a Pac-12 game at Tempe, Ariz. (Pac-12 Network).
Linebackers coach Roc Bellantoni makes his debut as interim defensive coordinator after the stunning midseason resignation of Tracy Claeys last week. He’ll watch the action from the press box and be in close communication with Darcel McBath, who has been named interim co-DC and will be the “voice on the sideline,” coach Mike Leach said.
At the same time, two or three players could make starting debuts and others could be playing new positions after a shakeup of defensive personnel. Second-year freshman Pat Nunn, who might make his first start at nickelback, delivered a particularly cogent pre-meeting speech last week, Watson said.
The Cougars, who have allowed a combined 105 points the past two games, will try to simplify their defensive schemes while sharpening and quickening their communication. McBath is being tasked with, among other things, unifying the coaching staff’s message to players.
“I thought we were too segmented, I thought we were too position-oriented,” Leach said of the Claeys-led defense this year. “Nobody really brought the message together before we went out there on the field.”
Bellantoni will be drawing on his experience as defensive coordinator at Florida Atlantic from 2014-16 and, before that, an 11-year run at Eastern Illinois in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“It’s been a wild week, just getting everything together,” Bellantoni said, “trying to figure out what our guys do best. It’s been nice — probably better than you would have thought it would go. I’ve been doing it a long time, 14 years as a coordinator. It’s just a matter of getting back into the routine, and time management and getting everybody on the same page.”
The Cougars aren’t facing a high-flying offense, but they’re bracing for the same type of dual-threat quarterback that gave them trouble in losses to UCLA and Utah. That would be tall, lanky true freshman Jayden Daniels, who’s complemented by one of the better running backs in the league, Eno Benjamin.
The Sun Devils, under second-year coach Herm Edwards, have relied heavily on their defense, which statistically ranks third in the league. The Wazzu offense waltzed through its first four games before getting thrown off rhythm in a 38-13 loss at Utah.
Yet Cougar offensive players seem to think the turmoil on the other side of the ball has lit a fire under the whole team.
“There’s definitely a little bit more energy through the building,” quarterback Anthony Gordon said of the football operations complex. “That’s something we took upon ourselves as a team ... to use this bye week to come together as a team and be ready to go for ASU.”
Dale Grummert may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2290.