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Duck Dive: Washington State Football 2022 Preview

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

Washington State v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/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


Offense

When former Washington St head coach Nick Rolovich was fired — along with four other position coaches — in the middle of last season, then-DC Dickert was promoted to interim head coach, and at the end of the season he got the full-time job. Interestingly, he then let go almost everyone else remaining on the staff, including the former OC/RB coach and WR coach. The replacement coaches at OC, WR, and OL for 2022 all have connections to former Wazzu head coach Mike Leach’s time at Texas Tech, and by all indications the Cougars are returning to an Air Raid offense.

New OC Morris started as an inside receivers coach under Leach at Wazzu for a year in 2012, then was an OC/WR coach for the next five years under Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech. In 2018 Morris was hired as the head coach at the University of the Incarnate Word, an FCS program in San Antonio where he’s spent the last four seasons.

Like every coach who comes off of Leach’s tree, Morris has made several changes to the Air Raid. I’d characterize it as marrying a spread option offense to the system, with both tight end use and designed runs (as opposed to opportunistic ones the QB would check into based on the defense pre-snap), and a read-option and RPO game coming off those run plays. There are also some minor modifications to the route tree, but otherwise the pocket passing game looks basically identical to Leach’s with a very simple progression and quick short throws.

I think the Cougs will have the quarterback and wide receivers they need to make it a very dangerous passing attack right away. But the running theme of our podcast with Jeff is that we don’t know how much Wazzu is going to lean into that formidable passing game, since we don’t know how Dickert will strategize as a head coach. It may be that Dickert wants to use heavily use tight ends and establish a run game — defensive-minded head coaches often do, and the film after he took over in 2021 lends some credence to that idea — and to me it doesn’t look like the rest of the units in the offense are ready to do that.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Morris’ starting quarterback for the last two seasons at UIW has transferred to Wazzu, #1 QB C. Ward. He won the Jerry Rice Award in the Spring 2021 season and posted over 4,600 passing yards with an impressive 154.2 NCAA passer rating in the Fall 2021 season. From film study I can say he processes the field rapidly and knows this offensive system well, and although I think his throwing motion is pretty unusual and I have some doubts about deep downfield accuracy, in this system that’s not particularly relevant and his very quick release is probably an asset. He’s almost certainly got the starting job locked down and it will likely be his as long as he’s available.

The backup situation is fairly dire, however. All four QBs who played last season have now left the program – Jayden de Laura, Cammon Cooper, Jarrett Guarantano, and even walk-on Victor Gabalis. There’s only one other scholarship quarterback on campus, mid 3-star redshirt freshman #16 QB X. Ward (no relation); he didn’t get any playing time last year and I didn’t think he looked ready to take over in the Spring game. A low 3-star 2022 recruit, John Mateer, doesn’t arrive until the Fall and it’s unlikely he’d be ready either. The rest of the room are all walk-on freshmen who’ve never played: returning redshirts #98 QB Holcomb and #13 QB Irvin, and early enrollee #18 QB E. Brown. As Jeff said on the podcast, the Air Raid usually takes quarterbacks a couple years to get comfortable in – that’s the transfer’s greatest asset, but a big liability for the rest of the room.

Wazzu is losing both of its primary running backs from the last several years, Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh, who combined for 271 carries and 30 receptions at 5.6 yards per touch in 2021. I think those are pretty big losses and will end up significantly curtailing the Cougs’ rushing attack and schematic options that require the run as a threat.

The only returner with any experience is #25 RB Watson, a former high 3-star who’d previously transferred from Wisconsin but Jeff and I both think hasn’t been effective at all for Wazzu – just 3.2 yards per carry and zero passing targets. The other scholarship returner, mid 3-star #5 RB Bazil, hasn’t recorded a stat in three seasons in Pullman. Wazzu recruited a couple mid 3-stars in the 2022 cycle; Jeff said it’s likely that early enrollee #23 RB Schlenbaker will jump ahead of the returners and become the starter right away, and I’d add that I wouldn’t be surprised if Fall enrollee Jaylen Jenkins gets the second spot. The rest of the room is four walk-on redshirt freshmen who’ve never played.

There’s a possibility that Schlenbaker works out and is ready to play well right away, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I think it’s almost certain that this unit will take a major step back in 2022, with dispositive structural implications for the Morris’ offense.

By the same token I have a hard time seeing the new TE position contributing much to the offense in 2022. No one in the room has played a single snap as a college tight end and the only scholarship returner, #94 TE Ashby, spent the last two seasons as a fourth-string defensive end. The other two returners are sophomore walk-ons #42 TE Bowen and #24 TE Mathers. I saw Mathers taking some reps as a blocking H-back in the Spring game and I think that’s probably the most we’ll see of this unit in live games.

There are three additions to the room, the most significant of which is high 3-star true freshman #87 TE Dollar. I watched him carefully in the Spring game because I think he’s the future of the position at Wazzu, but right now I don’t think he’s ready to be a serious blocker and I don’t see much value in going to 11-personnel instead of the Air Raid’s preferred four-wide. There are two unrated transfers here and I believe both are walk-ons: #42 TE Riviere from the FCS and #82 TE T. Ward from Nevada. The former didn’t record a stat in eight games last year and the latter I think just followed his father when he was hired from Reno to be the new DC; I don’t think either are real live-game options.

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

The wide receivers lose about two-thirds of their production from 2021 - the top two targets, Travell Harris and Calvin Jackson, combined for over 1,800 yards and have both signed UDFA contracts, plus backup Joey Hobert who had almost 200 yards has transferred out.

However, I think the receivers are still in pretty good shape and are by far the most reliable-looking skill group. They return both the starting outside receivers in #88 WR Stribling and #6 WR Ollie, who were the third- and fourth-leading targets, plus backup inside receiver #85 WR Victor who came in fifth and Jeff thinks is poised to blow up in 2022. We didn’t get to see them in Spring, but the Cougs have also taken two established receivers out of the portal – UIW’s Robert Ferrel on the inside who caught 74 passes from Ward last season, and Zeriah Beason who was Oregon St’s third-leading receiver on the outside. I think those five are a very solid WR corps who should be the strength of the offense.

There are a few other wild cards here as well. Sixth-year inside man #9 WR Bell missed last season with an injury and was still being held out in the Spring game; he’s been impressive in the past but Jeff says we have no word at all on his status. On the outside, #35 WR Moore was a high 3-star in 2018 when he enrolled at Oklahoma St, but produced virtually nothing there or at Wazzu, with a Juco stint in between. Unrated Div-II transfer #86 WR Owen was getting a lot of play on the inside during the Spring game, along with three other walk-ons. That’s notable because those guys were playing ahead of four scholarship returners who had few to no reps last year - #84 WR Meredith, #89 WR Nunnally, #81 WR Peters, and #15 WR Quinn.

I read that situation as having a pretty reliable starting group with adequate depth for a good rotation if everybody stays healthy, but they might be in real trouble if they take a couple injuries because the guys behind them look untested and questionable.

The offensive line loses both of its longtime tackles, Liam Ryan and Abraham Lucas. Last year Wazzu was splitting time at both center and right guard, those positions lose one guy each in Brian Greene and Cade Beresford, respectively. Both graded out higher on my tally sheet than their returning counterparts, #77 C Gomness and #75 OL Fifita.

Several linemen were out during the Cougs’ improvised bowl game against Central Michigan, so we saw them trying out several backups in new positions as something of a preview of 2022. Based on that and the Spring game, it appears they’re going to move the guards out to tackle: #52 LT Kingston was the left guard all of last season, and Fifita will be moving from rotational right guard to starting right tackle.

While I don’t think Gomness is a dominant player, he almost certainly has the starting center job locked down and I don’t have particular concerns there. But Jeff and I are both very skeptical of Kingston and Fifita playing out of position. Their performance in the bowl game was painful to watch and contributed to five allowed sacks by CMU, and I didn’t think they looked much improved in the Spring game. I think a couple of low 3-stars will be the new starting guards based on the Spring game - #57 LG Tialevea who I don’t believe I’ve seen play before, and #61 RG Hilborn who had some reps in the bowl game and had a pretty tough go of it.

It seems that starting five is locked in, for better or worse, but the backup situation looks both fluid and unencouraging to me, and that’s compounded by the fact that they apparently have no better options at starting tackle than to move guards out. There are only three other returning scholarship linemen, which is a shockingly small number and bordering on unsafe, and two of those in #79 OL Fa’amoe and #70 OL Kylany weren’t playing in the Spring game. The third was snapping the ball with the twos, low 3-star redshirt freshman #65 C Dieu. The other four on the number two o-line in Spring were all walk-ons: #56 LT J. Wilson, #76 LG Waverly, #53 RG Tafia, and #60 RT McCarthy.

I thought that group was getting torn to shreds by Wazzu’s number two defense. Jeff thinks the closest thing to a playable backup will be unrated FCS transfer Grant Stephens, but he wasn’t on campus for Spring for me to watch. They’ve taken six true freshmen in 2022, all low-to-mid 3-stars and enrolling in the Fall; I doubt any will play in 2022. There were five transfers out of the o-line room, all older scholarship guys who probably would have been better backup options than the ones they now have.

I don’t think the Cougs can afford a single injury to a starting lineman, and I’m not wild about the starters in the first place. This is another reason that I think Morris’ offense will be structurally constrained – I don’t think they’ll have the blocking to protect Ward for a lengthy progression and I doubt they’ll be able to open many holes in the run game. I suspect that a rational evaluation of their talent in the Fall would conclude that the only viable offense the Cougs could present – and it could be a pretty good one – is a very quick passing Air Raid without any of the additional elements the staff might like to include if they had a different roster. It remains to be seen if they’ll make the same assessment.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports


Defense

When Dickert was hired in 2020 as the defensive coordinator, he brought with him his 4-2-5 scheme from Wyoming, which was an appreciable schematic change from the 3-down fronts Wazzu had run for several years prior. The install went fairly smoothly in terms of converting personnel over and they’ve stuck with it ever since, and I expect that’ll continue in 2022.

The previous two seasons the Cougs’ defense had been at the bottom of FBS, ranking 100th in 2019 and 115th in 2020 in F+ advanced statistics. But in 2021 their ranking jumped 72 spots to 43rd – still in the lower end of the Power-5, but a huge leap nonetheless.

That improvement doesn’t show up on my tally sheet, however, with the Cougs coming in for almost exactly the same fairly poor per-play efficiency and explosive play defense figures compared to my charts in the last several seasons. They didn’t transform their talent base at all, and all traditional metrics of defensive success like total yards allowed remained stuck in the bottom half of FBS.

In my opinion, the most likely explanation is that Wazzu benefited from opposing offenses fumbling the ball at an extraordinary rate – the 27 opponent fumbles over the season ranked 1st in FBS, with the median number being 14, so the Cougs saw almost twice the average number of balls on the ground. For context, the consensus top defense in FBS saw only 15 fumbles all season … that was Georgia, which played two more games.

I highly doubt Wazzu has access to a unique fumble-forcing technique that even elite defenses don’t. Every defensive coach believes they can train their team to recover more fumbles but you won’t find a single member of the advanced stats community who agrees – it’s essentially random, and teams who have a good turnover year almost always fall back to earth the next season. My expectation is that 2021’s performance was just dumb luck and Wazzu’s defensive metrics will return to what their talent level predicts in 2022 (the same thing happened after 2017’s eyebrow-raising 23rd ranking in F+, when the Cougs were a top-25 team in both fumbles and interceptions – they fell off immediately and stayed down over the following three years as they got a normal number of turnovers).

NCAA Football: Colorado at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The defensive line splits its tackles and ends into two distinct units with separate coaches (in fact DE coach Cooper is the only other survivor besides Dickert from last year’s staff). Typical of four-down fronts, each of those units needs a four-man rotation to stay fresh throughout the game, and I think Wazzu will have that in 2022 as long as everyone stays healthy.

I think the ends are the strongest part of the defense, with returning starters #80 DE B. Jackson and #10 DE Stone. Both are redshirt juniors from the 2018 class and took over in 2020 with the scheme change, and I’ve been impressed with them for the last two years as far more effective getting around the edge than their mid 3-star talent ratings imply. They do tend to get stopped pretty handily by top-level offensive tackles, but in the Pac-12 the Cougs face very few of those. The rotational guys will probably be returners #95 DE Edson and #20 DE Roff, who got substantial reps last year.

This unit loses Willie Taylor to the portal, a longtime lineman for Wazzu who doesn’t really fit the new scheme, though he did get quite a few reps last year, plus two other guys who didn’t play at all. The biggest issue with the ends is that they don’t appear to have any experienced depth beyond the first four guys – there are three redshirt freshmen returners who didn’t play and were passed up by the walk-on Roff, a 2022 recruit who doesn’t arrive until the Fall, and nobody else in the room. I have no idea who’ll play if any of the top four are unavailable, and I think that would constitute a significant production loss.

Almost exactly the same thing can be said about the tackles – returning the four rotational guys from last year, losing a longtime linemen who’d been largely sidelined by the scheme change (Dallas Hobbs), but zero experience for the young returners behind them, so they should be solid if everyone is healthy but in trouble if someone gets hurt.

The returners are #54 DT Crowder, #93 DT Mejia, #48 DT Mujahid, and #96 DT Pule. All are upperclassmen who’ve been around for several seasons. They’re a bit undersized as usual in Pullman and they don’t really get the penetration one hopes for from tackles in a four-down front so I tend to think they’ll give up a lot up the middle, but experienced linemen around 280 lbs is about the best Wazzu is likely to do at the position.

The four other returners didn’t see the field last year, and the transfer in from Virginia #15 DT Malani barely did. Again, I have a pretty hard time picking out who’d fill in if there were an injury to one of the top four and I would think the falloff would be noticeable.

The linebackers lose all three of the grad students who’ve been mainstays at Wazzu since 2016 – Jahad Woods, Justus Rogers, and Dillon Sherman. Woods and Rogers combined for 183 tackles last year while Sherman was sidelined with injury.

The staff found some rotational reps for the backups last year, more so than had been true in previous seasons, but I still think the replacements here are largely unproven. The most went to #82 LB T. Brown, a high 3-star from the 2019 class who hasn’t shown me much to live up to that rating in his last three seasons. The next most reps went to #51 LB Mauigoa and #52 LB Thornton, with the former looking a big better on my tally sheet than the latter. There are five other returners in the room but virtually no reps for any of them last year and only two are on scholarship.

I expect that #1 LB Henley will win a starting job here, he transferred from Nevada where he was the top tackler in new DC Ward’s defense. I watched some of his film and think he’s a pretty savvy veteran but an awful lot of his tackles were giving up extra yards, and that he was a 2-star in the 2017 class for a reason. After talking this through with Jeff I think the second spot will probably go to Brown unless Mauigoa or Thornton really step it up in Fall camp. Once again, I think they’ll have a serviceable four-man rotation for the two linebacker spots, but if there’s an injury I don’t know who’ll fill in. Even though I was never really wild about Woods or Rogers over the years, all told I think this unit is facing a step back for their losses.

Washington State v Utah Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

The secondary appears to be, as is perpetually the case at Wazzu, a work in progress. The overall talent here is the lowest on the team and every year there’s something of a scramble to identify the playable guys through a raft of departures, additions, and transfers in and out. There are so many rotations in a typical year in Pullman that it’s difficult to even identify starters, but I think the four most significant departures are the guys who ran out of eligibility – George Hicks, Tyrone Hill, Daniel Isom, and Jaylen Watson. Those four combined for 172 tackles last year, more than half of all tackles by the secondary in 2021.

The two most significant returners are former Juco #5 CB Langford and nickelback #8 DB Marsh, and Jeff and I think those two have their starting jobs locked down. I think a couple of new faces will get the two starting safety jobs based on their performances in the Spring game – unrated Nevada transfer #13 DB Lee to the boundary and low 3-star Juco #37 DB Lockett to the field.

I think that the most likely scenario for the other starting safety spot is a Fall camp battle between returning backup #6 CB Smith-Wade, who Jeff says gets a lot of praise from the staff but was held out of the Spring game, and Utah St transfer Cam Lampkin who was a frequent backup in Logan (sixth most tackles among the secondary) and arrives in the Fall.

Picking out the backups is a challenge. Old Dominion transfer #23 DB Ford-Dement got the next most reps last year but that was only in a couple games, and nobody else has any real experience. I saw a bit of walk-on #32 DB Moku and Michigan St transfer #2 CB C. Jackson (whom Jeff says was a bit at sea last year). They’ve taken a transfer from UW earlier this month, Kasen Kinchen, who was a mid 3-star in the 2020 class and elected to walk on in Seattle before that program imploded; he never got any reps. Wazzu has taken five DB recruits in the 2022 class but none enrolled early.

I think the reason that this unit is almost entirely comprised of transfers, Jucos, and walk-ons — and virtually no experience going to seven other returning scholarship DBs — is simply that the Cougs recruit this position so poorly that they just can’t bank on more than one prep athlete per year turning out to be playable. It looks like this situation will continue in 2022, and just like the rest of the defense I think they’ll cobble together an okay group of starters but will be in serious trouble if there are any unavailabilities.


Accountability Corner

In last year’s preview, I predicted that despite a crowded QB room and some dissatisfaction with 2020 starter Jayden de Laura he’d win the job, and that’s what eventually happened. I only get partial credit on the WR room however – I did correctly predict Harris and Ollie would be top targets, and accurately pointed out that the room was so big they’d have no trouble filling in the rest of the starters and depth guys, but whiffed on the prediction that Moore would be a big target and didn’t see Jackson coming at all (he went from 12 yards in 2020 to 987 yards in 2021). The running back room was described perfectly accurately, including some skepticism about Watson’s transfer from Wisconsin. I got the starting offensive line exactly correct and the sixth man Fifita as well, but didn’t get the seventh man in Gomness. Most of my OL write-up was spent predicting the coming crunch with too small a room and no experience for the backups, which I believe we’re seeing now.

I think I described the defensive ends pretty well and got the prediction right that the new guys in the changed scheme would be the strongest part of the team, and I got one of the backups at end right too (degree of difficulty points: he was a walk-on who beat out scholarship guys). I got two of the four guys in the tackle rotation correct, but missed on the other two. I speculated that the room was big enough that there might be some fluidity, but should have named the guys who might have won rotational jobs and failed to do so. I got the linebacker starters right, no challenge there, but I also speculated that the backups would get more reps than they have in the past because the staff knew they were losing those grad students at the end of the year and that’s just what happened. I correctly predicted the wide rotation in the secondary and that it would be a mess.

NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 01 Oregon at Washington State Photo by Steve Conner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images