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Duck Dive: Washington State Football 2020 Preview

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Going deep with the Cougars’ scheme, returning personnel, and unknowns

NCAA Football: Washington State at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Special thanks to Jeff Nusser of CougCenter for breaking down the Wazzu roster with us on the Quack 12 Podcast, and for sharing his hate for the Huskies. You can check out the episode HERE!


Wazzu went 3-6 in conference play last year: 1-3 in one-score games, 2-2 in decisive contests, and a loss in their annual bizarre game against Cal.

There’s enough slack in that record that had Mike Leach stuck around I could see them bouncing back to as many as six conference wins. But a totally new coaching staff and scheme changes on both sides of the ball during a pandemic create more uncertainty than any other Pac-12 team.

It’s difficult to predict the Cougars’ record because this much scheme switching could go in very different directions - it could go great and they shock some teams that don’t have a good plan to deal with the new Wazzu, or it could be a disaster of an install on both sides, or anything in between.

Oregon State v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Offense

The Run & Shoot offense that head coach Rolovich used at Hawai’i over the last four years has evolved and gone in several different directions after its inception around 1960, and I was surprised when I turned on the Bows’ tape at how many concepts had changed since watching it at Portland St under Mouse Davis in the late 1970s. I can’t say at this point whether this was just a reaction to the talent in Honolulu, or if it’s a philosophical shift he’ll bring with him to Pullman. So I’ll wait until Wazzu has played a few competitive games before writing up a film study of the current version of it, and only reference what’s necessary in this article to discuss the Cougs’ roster.

The most salient is that the receivers’ route structure is very different from the Air Raid, and is based on the WRs changing where they run in reaction to how the defense covers them post-snap, as opposed to pre-planned routes to which the QB throws with anticipation as in most offenses. That requires the quarterback and receivers to be on the same page, so to speak, and read the defense as the play develops in the same way. As Jeff noted on the podcast, usually the first year of a Run & Shoot install is filled with interceptions because it’s very easy for the receiver to be in a totally different place than the passer thought he’d be.

Wazzu will be replacing their quarterback for the third straight year. There are some intriguing options here: redshirt sophomore #2 QB Cooper and redshirt freshman #15 QB Cruz were Leach recruits who look like quality pocket passers to me from their high school tape with different virtues: Cooper’s a 4-star with a lot of arm talent and Cruz is a very big QB who’s tough to take down and a long strider. We haven’t seen either of them attempt a pass in college, however, and the cancellation of Spring ball means they probably don’t have much of an edge on the true freshman from Hawai’i, Jayden de Laura, who wasn’t an early enrollee. De Laura ran a Run & Shoot offense at Saint Louis, literally across the street from the University of Hawai’i, and reportedly Rolovich had been watching him as a recruit for a while.

It’s impossible to make a prediction as to which QB wins the job at this point. Rolovich didn’t require a particularly mobile QB when he was at Hawai’i as he didn’t employ a rollout on most snaps (the “run” part of the Run & Shoot in other iterations of the system), so I think a pocket passer would do fine. More than anything else the choice will probably come down to chemistry with the receivers, which we can’t know until after practices. It strikes me as unlikely with this many good options at QB (and they’ve got a couple decent walk-ons and an FCS transfer for backup), and without reason to believe any of them have significant flaws in their game, that Rolovich won’t find a good starter.

Despite losing their three top receivers to graduation, Brandon Arconado, Easop Winston, and Dezmon Patmon, plus promising freshman backup Rodrick Fisher to transfer, I think Wazzu is in very good shape at the position because Leach operated with up to a dozen guys in the rotation who were getting a lot of experience. They’ll return three receivers at 6’3” or taller, #1 WR D. Martin, #17 WR K. Woods, and #83 WR Gray, plus the 5’10” #85 WR C. Jackson who was playing outside last year. Those four combined for 61 catches and 752 yards last year, so that’s good depth for the X- and Z-receivers.

On the inside they’ll return #9 WR Bell and #5 WR Harris and the 103 catches for 1,115 yards between them, plus some intriguing options for depth including former 4-star #6 WR Calvin who missed last year with a foot injury, and potentially some converted backs. Five of the seven returners mentioned are upperclassmen and the last two are redshirt sophomores, so I don’t foresee big problems with the install here or requiring them to be savvy route-runners, since we’re talking about seasoned vets in what was a pass-heavy system.

The Air Raid and the Run & Shoot both have rushing components in their systems, but require different things out of their running backs compared to conventional offenses, and critically, compared to each other. In Leach’s offense, run plays were checked into by the QB in response to certain defensive configurations, and if the back didn’t get the ball he’d sprint for the sideline to become a checkdown receiver. In Rolovich’s, the back instead tends to stay in the pocket for pass protection.

Washington State v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

That presents something of a crossroads for perhaps Wazzu’s best returner, #21 RB Borghi. We haven’t really seen him do much pass-pro as a back, and although he’s certainly tough to bring down as a ballcarrier, that doesn’t always mean a back would be a great blocker. It would also be a shame to lose his receiving production: 45% of his 2,154 career yards from scrimmage are through the air. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Borghi were converted to a W-receiver in the new system, with big #39 FB Markoff becoming the primary back to block and occasionally bust through a surprised defense on runs … at Hawai’i, Rolovich preferred some pretty big guys in the backfield. There’s also some speculation on the podcast that #16 RB McIntosh or #22 RB Bazil could switch to WR. The issue with the backs is that outside of Borghi, none of these guys are great runners that we’ve seen, unlike previous years where Leach had two high quality options in the rotation, which means something has to give in terms of production out of the backs.

In terms of personnel I think the biggest problem Wazzu’s offense faces is the offensive line. They lose their starting left guard and center, Robert Valencia and Frederick Mauigoa, and while they bring back #63 LT Ryan from last year, he didn’t have a great season replacing 2018’s 1st-round draft pick Andre Dillard at the position (in my opinion, Ryan was the least effective left tackle in the conference). On the other side they return the very good #72 RT Lucas and the solid #65 RG Watson. Wazzu returns three backups I saw in 2019: #75 OT Beresford, #52 OG Kingston, and #59 C Greene. Jeff thinks it’s likely that Ryan is moved back inside to left guard to battle it out with Kingston, with Beresford becoming the new starter at tackle and Greene taking over at center full time.

There are two issues here with the scheme switch. First, Leach recruited huge but immobile linemen for his first six years in Pullman, and while the OL coach for the last two seasons tried to get more athletic bodies in, the available two-deep is mostly made up of linemen who are really best suited for Air Raid blocking. It’s uncertain at this point what blocking scheme new OL coach Weber will employ (Run & Shoot teams are notoriously secretive about this); it’ll probably be a half-slide and a requirement to seriously run-block on some plays that’s fairly different from the simple pass-pro these guys were recruited for.

The second o-line issue is that the talent and experience here is minimal. While Wazzu has a whole lot of bodies on the roster, the starters will probably have a 2-star and a walk-on, and the rest comprise four walk-ons, a Juco, and seven low-to-mid 3-stars who were all freshmen last year. The Cougs have been fortunate in avoiding injuries for the most part in recent years (Jeff thinks this is related to the Air Raid and rarely having to do anything riskier than drop back in pass-pro), but that means we really don’t have any tape at all on what the depth is like.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 Cheez-It Bowl - Air Force v Washington State Photo by Carlos Herrera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defense

Wazzu finished #95 in defensive SP+ in 2019. Their average going back to 2005, the first year of SP+ rankings, is #73. They’ve finished #59 or worse in each of those 15 seasons but two: #40 in 2006, Robb Akey’s final year before he was hired to be Idaho’s head coach, and #30 in 2017, Alex Grinch’s final year before becoming Ohio St’s DC. Even Chris Ball had Wazzu’s defense on a steadily upward trajectory over his four years before Paul Wulff’s ruinous tenure was put to an end.

The good news for new DC Dickert, previously the coordinator at Wyoming where I thought he did quality work, is that if he significantly improves Wazzu’s defense above their low expectations then history suggests he’ll immediately land a bigger job. The bad news is that same history suggests it’ll probably take a few years, because the Cougars’ talent ceiling limits quick turnarounds - it’s not about putting great players in better positions to succeed, it’s about developing modest talents into overachievers, and that takes a while.

Dickert used a 4-2-5 defense at Wyoming, fairly different from the 3-3-5 that Grinch established and former DC Tracy Claeys continued until he abruptly quit in the middle of last season. Jeff thinks it’s likely that Dickert will install his system at Wazzu, but unlike a number of teams switching between even or odd fronts this offseason, I think the Cougs won’t suffer too much for it. Partly that’s because it’s hard to imagine this defense getting worse (though Duck fans who remember 2016 are quick to remind their cousins: it can always get worse), but mostly it’s because I think their personnel is better suited for a 4-2 anyway, with RUSH backers who’d be no less effective as DEs and some big linemen who’d be better off one-gapping.

Wazzu returns two experienced linemen who are the right size for defensive tackles in this system: #9 DT McDougle and #98 DT Hobbs. McDougle is interesting - as a true freshman at West Virginia in 2017 he played in all 13 games and caused a lot of havoc for a guy his size using his quick burst out of his stance, recording multiple TFLs, sacks, and fumbles; he redshirted in 2018 after transferring and was far less disruptive in 2019 in the odd front. Dickert’s system is likely a better fit for him than just holding the point of attack. The big concern here is depth - the rest of the linemen on the roster are very green, not highly ranked out of high school, and not currently listed at playing size. I think there’s a good chance that the two 2020 Juco transfers, Amir Mujahid and Antonio Pule, become the rotational guys at tackle, but they still need some bulking up and I don’t believe they made it to campus before the lockdown.

I think they’ll be deeper at end, where they return longtime starter #92 DE Rodgers, plus #96 DE Kwete who got plenty of playing time as a true freshman last year. I think two starting OLBs from last season will convert to pass-rush specialist ends - #10 DE Stone and #27 DE Taylor; both are presently officially listed as “EDGE” on the roster (whatever that means) along with Rodgers and Kwete. The losses here are fairly manageable; I thought the three linemen Wazzu graduated never really lived up to expectations.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 31 New Mexico State at Washington State Photo by Robert Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There’s more than enough experience at linebacker to believe the Cougs will be fine here in a scheme switch, if not great. They return everybody from last year including both starters on the inside, #13 LB J. Woods and #37 LB Rogers. Woods was the second leading tackler in the Pac-12 with 141, though that’s mostly an artifact of last year’s defensive structure funneling absolutely everything to the inside backers, and Jeff was quite effusive about the distressing number of missed tackles from these two in 2019.

There should be good depth here - #82 LB Brown will probably get a spot in the rotation; he was a high 3-star true freshman who played extensively last year and in Jeff’s opinion outshone Rogers’ talent. #51 LB Pladson and #41 LB Sherman got some playing time as well, and Jeff thinks high 3-star redshirt freshman #57 LB Naulu will be ready to play as well.

Wazzu lost two of its most productive defensive backs after last year: Marcus Strong graduated and Bryce Beekman sadly passed away. The returning DBs certainly got plenty of experience: they return six players with at least 10 tackles apiece (and the secondary has to do a lot of tackling in this defense, they recorded more than the linebackers did last year). In most defenses the starting five would be pretty easy to predict: hard-hitting #1 DB Ross and longtime vet #25 DB Thomas at safety, with #18 CB Hicks, #3 CB Isom, and #35 CB Marsh rounding out the nickel (Isom entered the transfer portal but Jeff assures us that he’s re-enrolled at Wazzu).

But to be blunt, this secondary just wasn’t very good at all — I documented plenty of coverage and angle problems in film study, and they were #90 or worse in every raw statistical category the secondary contributes to — and I would think there’s ample room for younger players or transfers to beat out established starters for their jobs with a new staff making the evaluations. I’ll be watching for last year’s sophomore backups #2 CB Langford and #32 DB Nunn, FCS grad transfer Phillip Powell, and the #2 recruit in the 2020 class Alphonse Oywak to possibly make moves here.


NCAA Football: Washington State at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Accountability Corner

In last summer’s preview, I correctly predicted that they’d lose all their conference road games, though while I did suspect that Wazzu would have rather played Arizona than UCLA from the South, that game was the craziest all year and I can hardly be credited for it.

I got just about everything right in writing up the offense (though predicting Mike Leach’s offense is hardly a challenge, just ask the Huskies), including correctly calling that Leach would select Gordon over the FCS transfer Gubrud at QB, which surprised Jeff on last summer’s podcast. I noted that Borghi wouldn’t have a real backup at RB, and sure enough he got 84% of the touches there. And reader, please review last summer’s section on the offensive line - my crystal ball was particularly clear with every aspect of that unit.

On defense, I praised Tracy Claeys for adapting his defensive structure from a Midwestern 4-down front to Grinch’s 3-3, so it’s somewhat embarrassing that he left town halfway through the year, though it’s not like we’ve ever gotten a clear picture what really happened there. Everything else about Wazzu’s defense went according to how I saw it: significant talent problems and personnel losses in the secondary, and an undersized defensive front getting run over in rush defense. My biggest miss was expecting this to finally be the year that some of Wazzu’s promising linemen turned the corner; that never really came to be. Overall I thought this squad would continue its slide from 2017, which certainly happened, but I thought Claeys and a better pass rush would keep it from being catastrophic, which obviously didn’t.


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