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Duck Dive: Washington State Football 2021 Preview

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

Oregon v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Special thanks to Jeff Nusser of CougCenter for speaking with me on the Quack 12 Podcast during our deep dive into the Washington State roster. Listen HERE.


NCAA Football: Washington State at Utah Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

Teams installing the Run & Shoot throughout its history often have a rough going of it at first, since the nature of the choice routes in this offense require the quarterback and wide receivers to read the post-snap defense in the same way, and any daylight between them tends to produce a lot of incompletions and interceptions. Curiously, Wazzu seems to have gone in reverse in 2020 - they started out running it pretty effectively (although as Jeff and I have discussed a couple times, it’s a fairly stripped-down version of the Run & Shoot), but became less and less effective at it in each of their four games.

It’s nearly impossible to disentangle the reasons why that might be with such a small sample size, since the defenses varied in style and quality and the offensive line breakdowns were frequent, but it has put some pressure on 2020’s starter, #4 QB de Laura. While his opening game was far from perfect, I thought it made sense for new HC Rolovich to choose the then-true freshman over a couple older quarterbacks on the roster, since he’s more capable of throwing while on the move (the “Run” part of the offense’s name refers to QB rollouts) and his high school offense was fairly similar to Rolovich’s at Hawaii. But the offense was a no-show in four of their final six halves of football, and in the last game he was benched for a time due to ineffectiveness.

De Laura missed all of Spring practice while serving a suspension due to a DUI in February, and it seems the door has been opened for some competition. There are four others in the room: #2 QB Cooper, #18 QB Guarantano, #16 QB Ward, and #10 QB Gabalis. Cooper is a low 4-star from the 2018 class, recruited to run the Air Raid, but he’s now been passed up for the starting job by three different quarterbacks, and Jeff thinks what we’ve seen from him in limited reps and Spring games is that he’s not living up to that rating. Guarantano has been the QB at Tennessee for four seasons; his career passer rating of 136.6 is unimpressive and I think there’s a reason he transferred out after that much tenure, and the beginning of his time at Wazzu has been snakebit: on the first snap of the Spring game he threw an interception, injured his hand while doing it, and sat out the rest of the game. We’ve only seen Gabalis and Ward in this Spring game; the former is a walk-on but didn’t look terrible and the latter is a mid 3-star true freshman whom Jeff thinks looked the best of any of the three who played.

It’ll be interesting to watch this competition in the Fall since there’s arguably a five-way race for the starting job. Ultimately, I would guess that Rolovich winds up going with de Laura again now that he’s been reinstated, because the same reasons he picked the kid last year still obtain: he has the best physical fit for and the most experience in the offense, and those things are at a premium in this system. The upside is that Wazzu’s QB depth should be fine in case de Laura in unavailable … or someone else surpasses him midseason.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Southern California Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

While the wide receiver room at Wazzu is much bigger than most, the Cougars really only used three receivers last year: #9 WR Bell, #6 WR Calvin, and #1 WR Harris got almost 90% of all targets and catches. Calvin is transferring out, as is walk-on #82 WR Bacon who had the fourth most catches and #81 WR Wilkerson, an unused 2020 recruit who got in the portal after we recorded with Jeff. They join quite an exodus of receivers from the program before the season started, and experience in this system is very limited.

Still, Wazzu brings back their top two receivers plus seven more returners, and they took three transfers and four true freshmen, so this room is certainly full despite all those departures. Jeff thinks the two who’ll round out the starting four are returner #13 WR Ollie and Oklahoma St transfer #35 WR Moore. Both are over 6’3”, which is a counterpoint to last year’s offense where almost everything was going to 5’10” or shorter receivers. Overall depth isn’t a problem, but there is a real lack of taller outside receivers in the room and I think they’d run into some skillset redundancy if Ollie or Moore is unavailable - the only other tall receiver they have is 2018 recruit #83 WR Gray who essentially hasn’t played yet.

The running back room, on the other hand, is pretty deep with experience. #21 RB Borghi returns to terrorize the Pac-12; he was rehabbing a back injury for most of 2020 and we only saw him in the final game - he looked good carrying the ball but couldn’t pass-protect at all, though that may have just been the lack of real strength training. This system, unlike the Air Raid, demands the back stay in and block instead of running to the sidelines for checkdowns, so it was an open question if Borghi could actually do that and it still seems to be. However, #3 RB McIntosh, a Notre Dame transfer by way of a Juco, carried the load and executed his blocks very well last year in a big surprise to both Jeff and I (we thought he looked ineffective as a backup and in the 2019 Spring game; Jeff told an interesting story on the podcast about why that may have been).

In addition to returners Borghi and McIntosh, Nakia Watson from Wisconsin will transfer in by the Fall - he had 4.1 ypc on 127 career rushes as a backup in Madison. There are also three other backs in the room who’ve each been in the program for several years, so depth looks fine here.

The Cougs’ offensive line only loses one starter — #65 RG Watson — but despite that I think their line situation is problematic. I continue to think that #63 LT Ryan is one of the weakest tackles in the league, and while I think #72 RT Lucas has pretty good footwork I’ve never been as high on him as most of the media (this often happens with offensive linemen where there are no stats to go by). I think the switch in the protection scheme from the Air Raid’s wide splits to the Run & Shoot’s modified half-slide protection didn’t go over well, and the tackles in particular were getting beat a lot.

I think #52 LG Kingston and #50 C Greene played well enough all things considered, but are limited by their talent ceilings - they’re a low 3-star and a 2-star, respectively. The backup who looked the most playable in the Spring game was #75 OL Beresford - he’s built like a tackle but was playing guard. Jeff has been wishing that Ryan would move inside for years, so a flip of those two is a possibility, but my guess is that Wazzu will be conservative and just plug Beresford in at RG to replace Watson and otherwise go with last year’s starting configuration.

The real issue here is depth - outside the four returning starters, no one in this unit has played a single live snap at o-line, including Beresford or the other backup Jeff suggested, #66 OL Fifita. Beyond those mentioned and a couple of true freshmen, there are only eight other scholarship linemen, all of whom are low 3-stars, and I was seeing walk-ons get extended reps in the Spring game. That would be a shortage of bodies even if there were some talented enough to be game-ready with no reps, and I don’t think there are. Wazzu has been pretty fortunate at avoiding injuries in the last several years, but if that run of good luck comes to an end they may find themselves shorthanded.


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

Defense

Wazzu implemented a defensive scheme change in 2020 as well; DC Dickert brought his 4-2-5 structure with him from Wyoming and it required reshuffling the defensive line positions compared to the 3-down front that Wazzu had been running for several years. All things considered I thought the transition was fairly smooth and in particular they were generating more backfield penetration than in 2019.

The biggest personnel group affected were the defensive ends, and longtime starters #27 DE Taylor and #92 DE Rodgers were largely sidelined in the new system; Rodgers has since elected to transfer out. Their replacements were a couple of 2018 recruits I hadn’t really seen before, #80 DE B. Jackson and #10 DE Stone - the former had missed the 2019 season with an injury and the latter really needed to bulk up (he still does, actually, I think he was about 15 lbs under his ideal playing weight last year). Those two were surprisingly effective off the edge and made the scheme work out.

The real problem is depth - Wazzu simply doesn’t have any other experienced ends to fill in for them since the starters played nearly every snap and the rest of the roster is eight low-to-mid 3-star freshmen - four 2020 recruits and four 2021 recruits, and the latter weren’t on campus for Spring. #78 DE Roff, a walk-on from 2019, was getting most of the backup reps ahead of the true freshmen last year, which isn’t a great sign. If Jackson or Stone are unavailable for any reason, the options to replace them are very limited.

Defensive tackles are in better shape in terms of depth, and as it happens the DTs in this scheme don’t need to be elite athletes so simply having plenty of bodies here — which Wazzu does — is adequate. The starters are #95 DT Crowder and #98 DT Hobbs, both upperclassmen, and the backups are #48 DT Mujahid and #97 DT Garay-Harris, neither of whom are freshmen either. There are also eight other DTs on the roster beyond those four, including one walk-on who got a few reps last year and the two true freshmen - that’s enough depth that I suspect one or two might be switched to end, though I don’t see any ideal dimensions for it. There’s one transfer out, #9 DT McDougle; he had an intriguing freshman season at West Virginia and I thought this scheme would be a good fit for him, but he didn’t see the field.

I don’t expect any changes at linebacker, where longtime starters #37 LB Rogers and #13 LB Woods are both back for their sixth year in Pullman. I’ve never been wild about either but they’re each good for a couple of exciting plays every game. The backups in 2020 were #41 LB Sherman and #82 LB Brown. Sherman walked on at the same time as Rogers and Woods and has been a backup for a while, though Jeff shared some scuttlebutt on the podcast that Sherman may want to retire before the season starts.

At any rate those three will have run out of eligibility by the end of 2021, and I’m curious how the need to replace them for 2022 might affect this upcoming season. Brown is an impressive athlete but he’s just never put it together as an effective backer, and Jeff suspects it’s not going to happen for him. #51 LB Pladson, another walk-on who’d gotten some backup reps the last two years, appears to have left the team. Wazzu took #9 LB Wilson from TCU out of the transfer portal this year; we saw him with the second unit in the Spring game and he seemed to be having trouble with the scheme. They also recruited four freshman LBs in the 2021 cycle and I don’t think I saw any during Spring practice - that’s a fairly large class but they’re going to be replacing virtually all of their production for 2022.

I think a bold coaching staff might try cycling some of the younger backers in now as a long-term play, but Jeff thinks that’s very unlikely and they’ll stick with Rogers and Woods as much as possible. If Sherman is in fact unavailable I would guess that Brown and Wilson would play in case of an injury to the starters, but so far they haven’t impressed compared to Rogers or Woods and I don’t think that’s a high bar.

Jeff had some choice language on the podcast to describe Wazzu’s poor secondary performance in 2020, though in my opinion this has simply been an ineffective unit almost every year of the last decade. This will be the second time in three years that they’ll lose at least five defensive backs from the program in the offseason, most of whom were past starters and including the most effective player on the field that Wazzu has had in living memory.

Washington State v Utah Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

The Cougs return both outside corners, #18 CB G. Hicks and #0 CB Watson. Hicks has been around since 2017 and I think he’s one of the weakest corners in the league. Watson was a mid 3-star who went Juco for his first two years then signed with USC for the 2019 cycle but decommitted; he wound up at Wazzu and didn’t play that year. Jeff thought he was a lockdown corner in 2020 and I’m not sure I saw that, but corners give me some trouble when charting and most of the other DBs are such a liabilities that it complicates evaluating his part of the field. Wazzu got a transfer from Michigan St, #12 CB Ch. Jackson, and it’ll be interesting to see how he fits in during Fall camp.

Free safety #3 DB Isom and nickelback #8 DB Marsh both return and are known quantities at this point - Isom is in his last year of eligibility and Marsh the second-to-last. They need to replace the strong safety and have a few options who played last year to do it with; I think the most likely is #23 DB Smith-Wade but #2 DB Langford and #31 DB Escoria got a comparable number of backup reps.

Oddly enough the Cougs’ secondary simultaneously has a lot of transition with so many departures and a potential starter change with the transfer in, but also seems pretty stable with four starters returning and a few somewhat experienced backups. I’m not sure what to make of that, but I’m also not sure it matters - I just don’t expect much out of this unit given its long history of poor performance, loss of its best player, and overall lack of talent.


NCAA Football: Washington State at Southern California Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Accountability Corner

In last season’s summer preview of Wazzu I declined to make a prediction about who would win the starting QB job because I figured it would come down to who had the best connection with the established wide receivers and we wouldn’t know that until Fall. But I wish I’d gone with my instincts because they were telling me that de Laura would get it for reasons that were clear enough at the time. The bigger surprise was that those wideouts turned out not to be as established as I thought, with several leaving the program before the season started, getting sidelined, or otherwise leaving the program eventually. Covid makes it difficult to tell how much of that was predictable beforehand, but I probably should have foreseen more turmoil given the coaching change away from one of the most totalizing systems in football. Borghi’s injury made the running back section somewhat moot, though I think the note about pass-blocking was pretty relevant. The offensive line group lined up as expected and I think the guess that they’d represent the bigger problem in the new scheme rather than the QB was borne out.

I think that I nailed how the defensive scheme change would go, especially how the available personnel would be used differently when one-gapping vs two-gapping. I correctly predicted Stone would convert successfully from a pass-rush specialist OLB to a starting DE, though I didn’t see Jackson coming off his injury to claim the other starting job and relegating Rodgers and Taylor to the bench. The linebackers went as expected but of course they did with longtime starters. The secondary section was a mess — there were multiple departures after I published and their best player hadn’t joined the team yet — so it reads fairly inaccurately in the particulars, but since ultimately my prediction amounted to ‘this unit won’t be very good since it’s a mess’ and that was definitely true, I’m not going to sweat it.


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