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Duck Dive: Washington State Football 2023 Preview

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

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 24 Oregon at Washington State Photo by Oliver McKenna/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Special thanks to Jeff Nusser of Podcast Vs. Everyone for speaking with me on the Quack 12 Podcast to discuss the Washington State roster. LISTEN HERE


Wazzu’s offense ranked 69th in F+ advanced statistics in 2022. It was a return to the Air Raid after a three-year hiatus (maybe two and a half, depending on how you count it). Head coach Dickert had brought in Eric Morris to re-install the offense, though it’s not the “pure” Air Raid that the late Mike Leach ran on the Palouse from 2012-19. Morris has now taken the head coaching job at North Texas, and for 2023 Dickert hired OC Arbuckle who had the same job at Western Kentucky last year using a similar system.

There’s an interesting set of connections between Morris, Arbuckle, Texas Tech, Houston Baptist, and Western Kentucky that I discovered last year when writing up Arbuckle’s former colleague, Oregon RB coach Locklyn, and which are explored in depth on the podcast. Suffice it to say that I expect to see a continuation in Pullman of last year’s marriage of an Air Raid passing tree with tight end usage, RPOs and other designed runs, and an uptempo approach.

I’ve watched a few of Arbuckle’s games at WKU in 2022, enough to recognize a continuation of the 2021 system (when he was a QC coach; he got promoted when the 2021 OC left for Texas Tech) that I’d already studied. They ranked 45th in F+ in 2022, which was better than Morris did with the Cougs, although a steep falloff from the Hilltoppers’ 6th place ranking in 2021 … I think that was mostly due to QB Bailey Zappe getting drafted and his replacement not being nearly the same caliber, as discussed on the podcast.

It’s not possible for me to do an exact apples-to-apples comparison between Arbuckle and Morris as FBS OCs without charting WKU’s complete 2022 season as I have with Wazzu’s, but since their offensive systems were pretty similar we can use national rankings from raw stats and extrapolations from my tally sheet to make some inferences about strengths and weaknesses.

As expected, they both have identical run-pass balances – only 29% of all plays from scrimmage by both WKU and Wazzu in 2022 were rushes by RBs (and a handful of WR sweeps). That strong passing preference will be a problem with the offense that Arbuckle inherits if there aren’t some fixes, because Wazzu was both inefficent and unexplosive in the passing game: the Cougs in 2022 were underwater at 46% passing efficiency (232 successful designed passing plays vs 269 failures, given the down & distance, excluding garbage time). They only generated 6.5 adjusted YPA, an atrocious figure dragged down schematically by frequent failed screens, and just 13% of passes gained 15+ yards.

One area that Morris excelled at, however, was redzone playcalling (Jeff called him “a redzone wizard”). On my tally sheet, Wazzu’s per-play success rate rose from 47% between the 20s to 55% inside the 20-yard line, a remarkable jump which is pretty rare to see since defenses generally gain an advantage as the field compresses, especially against passing offenses. This may be an advantage that Arbuckle has a hard time replicating, as in raw stats Wazzu in 2022 ranked 10th nationally in redzone touchdown conversion rate, while WKU in 2022 ranked 84th.

There may be some low-hanging fruit for potential immediate improvement in short-yardage situational playcalling, however. Jeff and I both used some intemperate language on the podcast discussing the frustration of Morris’ refusal to call rushing plays in short-yardage, instead preferring screens that weren’t working at all.

Overall, Wazzu had a pretty mediocre rushing offense, and their rushing stats on my tally sheet are almost perfectly average for a Power-5 team: 51% efficiency (98 successes vs 94 failures), 5.4 adjusted YPC, 15% of designed runs gaining 10+ yards. However, restricted to 2nd & short, 2nd & medium, and 3rd & short situations, the Cougs had a cumulative 73% rushing efficiency, which is an incredible spike of 22 percentage points (and using a large enough sample over an entire season that it’s not noise) … but Morris only called for rushes on 33% of such down & distances.

That’s what Jeff and I were howling about – it indicated a total failure of self-scouting. I’m positive that this strongly contributed to Wazzu’s miserable 3rd down conversion rate, which ranked 95th nationally in raw stats, and is something Arbuckle has a real shot to improve on by simply rationalizing short-yardage run-pass balance. WKU’s 44th ranking nationally in 3rd down conversions last year suggests he might do just that.

The quarterback Morris brought with him to Wazzu when he arrived from the FCS ranks was #1 QB C. Ward; while Morris has moved on in 2023, Ward is staying put. Last year’s backup also returns, low 3-star redshirt freshman #10 QB Mateer, though he only took a handful of snaps in one game, the end of Wazzu’s blowout win over Stanford.

Since Xavier Ward (no relation) and walk-on Luke Holcomb transferred out, there are only two other quarterbacks on the roster, both freshmen: walk-on #18 QB E. Brown who redshirted, and low 3-star 2023 recruit Jaxon Potter who arrives in the Fall. Mateer is the likely backup again if Ward is unavailable, though that would be a pretty grim scenario for the Cougs based on the state of this room.

Ward finished the season with a 130.7 NCAA passer rating, significantly below the FBS average and farther still from his 154.2 rating in 2021 as a Jerry Rice Award-winning FCS quarterback. As noted in my Summer and Fall previews last year, Ward’s throwing mechanics are highly unorthodox (certain trainers would simply say incorrect), and while he has the arm strength to throw the ball deep, it’s pretty rare that he does so with any kind of accuracy. By midseason, as Jeff noted, Ward was missing wide open throws and had “happy feet”, scrambling too early and improvising plays constantly instead of following the near-robotic progression the Air Raid demands.

Jeff said that he thinks Ward is a talented passer, which I agree with to an extent – I certainly think he’s dangerous when he’s on – and that he can be made into a good quarterback with the right coaching. He relayed that Arbuckle was shocked that Ward’s throwing motion and footwork haven’t been corrected by now … and I suppose I am too, but I also think that after three seasons and nearly 1,400 attempted passes as a starting quarterback it’s too late in his career for that to happen.

On the podcast, Jeff aptly pointed out that the deep ball in particular and explosive plays in general aren’t really essential to an Air Raid offense. That’s true – it always has been an efficiency offense first and foremost, which plays ball control in the same way that a ground-and-pound or triple-option offense does, just through the air instead.

But there are two issues for Wazzu to contend with: first, Ward and the Cougs in 2022 weren’t efficient, and other than the remote possibilities of a QB coaching change or different offensive tackles affecting that, there’s nothing to make me think they will be in 2023. And second, what WKU’s 6th ranked offense in 2021 added (and was missing in the 45th ranked 2022 iteration), as well as all the other innovators like Lincoln Riley and Kliff Kingsbury who took Leach’s system and created top-ten offenses with it, was precisely that deep passing threat and other explosive plays.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 08 Washington State at USC Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The running backs return the top three ballcarriers: #25 RB Watson, #29 RB Jenkins, and #30 RB Paine. They also return mid 3-star redshirt freshman #23 RB Schlenbaker. The only departures are a couple of transfers out, 2019 mid 3-star Jouvensly Bazil who didn’t record a carry in four seasons and walk-on Kannon Katzer who finished up a garbage-time drive against Colorado State.

Watson’s career has been a peculiar one. He’s a big back at 6’0” and 216 lbs, and was a high 3-star in the 2018 cycle who signed with Wisconsin and redshirted, then had a decent backup season in 2019 in Madison. But the next year his carries and rushing average fell off, then when he transferred to Wazzu they fell even further in 2021. So I wasn’t expecting much for 2022, since it’s rare to see fifth-year running backs at all much less fifth-year turnarounds, but that’s just what happened – he jumped up to 5.3 YPC with over a thousand yards from scrimmage when combined with his nearly 300 receiving yards. The fact that he’s returning to Pullman for his sixth year instead of trying for the pros indicates he knows where his ceiling is, but he’s still rounded into a reliable back for the Cougs.

Jenkins is the change-of-pace back, he had about half the carries at a half a yard better of an average, but he’s much smaller at 5’8” and 167 lbs. If Watson were unavailable Jeff and I agreed that Jenkins is unlikely to be able to carry the load, so it’ll be interesting to see who wins the job as Watson’s backup as the every-down back.

Paine is a former walk-on without great stats or dimensions, I think he was really only getting what playing time he was last year because nobody else was ready to go, though he was being held out in the Spring game with a minor injury so I wasn’t able to see how he looks right now. Schlenbaker did play in Spring and didn’t look bad, and he’s big enough to replace Watson if need be, but the concern is that he wasn’t trusted to play more than a couple touches on the same Stanford garbage-time drive as Mateer while preserving his redshirt last year – Jeff said his high school experience was minimal and he looks kind of stiff when running, but that might be worked out of him by now. There’s one other option, 2023 mid 3-star Leo Pulalasi who’s listed as a similar body type, but he doesn’t arrive until the Fall. Schlenbaker probably has the inside track, with Paine as the fallback option.

Wazzu first started listing tight ends on their roster in 2022, although a few of the names were present the year before in other roles, mainly the defense. Most of them were walk-ons, but the Cougs recruited one freshman that cycle, high 3-star #87 TE Dollar who redshirted, and brought in an unrated FCS transfer, #42 TE Riviere who wound up being the only one in the room who got any targets.

Several of the walk-ons and positional converts have left the team, but the Cougs seem to want to keep going with the position as they’ve added another 2023 recruit, mid 3-star Trey Leckner who arrives in the Fall. Riviere, Dollar, and a third tight end just used as a blocker last year, walk-on #24 TE Mathers, played throughout the Spring game.

I’m not convinced the unit will be any more prepared to contribute this year than last year, though, beyond some blocking on the power run plays that differentiate this offense from Leach’s Air Raid. Dollar appeared with the twos in the Spring game and still doesn’t look ready to play yet to me, even though he’s bigger and has better physical tools than Mathers who was with the ones. Riviere figures to continue to be the only real receiving option in the room, and even he wasn’t used that much last year with just 12 receptions and under ten yards per catch. That made him the 10th most targeted pass catcher in 2022, behind seven wideouts and two backs.

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

The wide receivers lose all four starters and top producers. The two outside starters, Donovan Ollie and De’Zhaun Stribling, transferred to Cincinnati and Oklahoma State respectively, while the two inside starters Renard Bell and Robert Ferrel graduated. They also lose a pair of backups who got a little playing time, Anderson Grover and Drake Owen, plus a couple of receivers who’d transferred in to some fanfare but then never played, CJ Moore and Zeriah Beason (there was an eligibility issue though I never got the full story). The departures represent about 70% of the wideouts’ targets and 75% of their production last year.

The Cougs return each of the primary backups at those positions: on the outside #4 WR Nunnally at X and #89 WR Smithson at Z, with #20 WR Peters and #5 WR Victor on the inside. There’s only one other returner on scholarship, low 3-star redshirt sophomore #84 Meredith, who’s gotten a single catch for five yards in his two seasons.

Five scholarship wideouts remaining meant a substantial rebuild of this room, and Wazzu has taken six additions here Two are mid 3-star prep recruits, Carlos Hernandez who played in the Spring game and Brandon Hills who arrives in the Fall. One is a mid 3-star Juco, #0 WR Sheffield. The final three are Mountain West transfers: #9 WR Hamilton from San José State, #6 WR Kelly from Fresno State (he was wearing jersey #3 in the Spring game), and #2 WR Ky. Williams from UNLV.

It seems pretty clear to me that Williams and Kelly will be the new starting outside receivers at X and Z respectively. They were playing with the ones in the Spring game while Nunnally and Smithson were with the twos. It doesn’t appear that Wazzu has anyone else on the roster who’s over six feet tall, so I think that’s it for options on the outside given the structure of the Air Raid passing tree really requires height. Although, eleven scholarship receivers is still a bit under the ideal number for this type of offense, and they had to play some very green walk-ons for depth in the Spring game, so perhaps there’ll be some more portal additions by the Fall.

There are some complicating factors, however. First, Kelly and Williams are several inches shorter than the starters they’re replacing (both are listed at 6’1”, but Jeff and I agree that’s a little generous). Nunnally is now the only 6’3” WR left with Ollie and Stribling leaving; Jeff made a case for him having a prominent role in the rotation in 2023 for that reason, but I’m skeptical of that – Nunnally had a pretty bad problem with drops and he simply doesn’t create much separation, making him the least productive of the eight guys in the main rotation at just seven catches and under ten yards per reception in 2022. Second, Kelly isn’t any bigger, more talented, or more accomplished than Smithson, and was fairly buried on the depth chart in Fresno as a fourth year player while Smithson was a primary backup as a true freshman, so I view Kelly’s addition as adding similar depth but not qualitatively improving the room, and overall I think this year’s outside receivers look less promising than last year’s group.

The order for the two inside receiver spots is a little harder to pick out, though that’s just because there are more options and a couple of guys were held out in the Spring game. The ones in the Spring game were the new Juco Sheffield and the returning backup Victor, while the true freshman Hernandez and the lightly used returner Meredith were with the twos. Hamilton and Peters were held out with injury and Hills hadn’t arrived yet; all three are slot players by build (the first two I’ve watched on film in that position, the last is 5’10”). Sheffield had some big plays in the Spring game, and Hernandez looked pretty playable as a true freshman, so this might be a real battle in Fall camp when everybody is presumably healthy. Of the experienced players I think the most likely to miss out on substantial playing time is Hamilton, he’s the least talented on paper as a former 2-star and hasn’t produced a lot since his freshman year despite being part of the 2018 cycle.

Despite the heavy losses in terms of production, and something of a step back in terms of size on the outside, I think the wide receiver room will probably be fine in 2023. They’ll have three outside and four inside receivers who are fairly proven players, which is enough depth to survive a couple injuries without any real hitch in production, and appropriate depth behind that of developmental guys (well, inside anyway). I don’t think this will be the best wide receiver room in the league by any stretch, and I doubt they’ll have the talent to bail the offense out of problems that other aspects may put them into. But I don’t think the wideouts will be the bottleneck in Wazzu’s offense either – that’s much more likely to be in one (or more) of the areas that were problematic last year: situtational playcalling, accurate passing, or protection.

The offensive line loses two starters: left tackle Jarrett Kingston and right guard Grant Stephens. They also lose Quinn McCarthy, their primary backup guard who started in three games and came in at various other points for mop-up duty, brief injury absences, at at one point a rather bizarre targeting ejection.

Wazzu returns #77 C Gomness who snapped every meaningful play and #61 OL Hilborn who started the first ten games at left guard and the last three at left tackle (Kingston suffered a season-ending injury in the second quarter against Stanford so Hilborn finished that game at LT; they tried out Stephens at LT the next week, then went back to Hilborn at LT for the rest of the year). They also return #76 OL Fifita, who started the first six games at RT but by midseason had been pulled, switched to a guard, and demoted to a secondary backup behind McCarthy, as well as #79 RT Fa’amoe who switched from d-line in Spring of 2022 and took over from Fifita at right tackle for the last seven games and never gave the spot up.

The story of the season is that the interior of the line was fairly reliable with longtime starter Gomness, plus Hilborn, Stephens, and (by the end of the season) two available backups who each graded out when playing guards pretty well on my tally sheet. But no one Wazzu played at tackle was supposed to be there, and it showed – Kingston and Fifita were both switched from guards the previous season and were completely inept in pass protection, with Fifita losing the job at Wazzu and Kingston transferring to USC where they’re going to return him to guard. When they tried others at the position – the OGs Hilborn and Stephens, and the converted DL Fa’amoe – their grades were just as poor.

In the Spring game, Hilborn was back at LG, Gomness had his center spot naturally, and Fifita was at RG – that interior will probably be fine. Fa’amoe was at RT, which I don’t think is going to work out much better than last year, but they don’t really have any other option and at least he has some experience from the second half of last year (Jeff thinks his frame is better suited for it than Fifita’s, I think he just plays high). The replacement for Kingston is a new Juco, #76 LT Pole, who only recently took up football after playing basketball until 2021. Jeff is a big believer that Pole will be significantly better than Kingston, and so the line will dramatically improve its pass protection and cure Ward of his happy feet. I’m slightly skeptical that a 6’7”, 320 lbs left tackle who moves like a cat was rated a mid 3-star and got only one other Power-5 offer from Cal.

The backup situation looks dicey. Since McCarthy transferred out and Fifita’s a starter now, none of the returning backups have any experience on the field. The only lineman who does is an unrated FCS transfer, #68 OG Nkanu, who was playing RG with the twos in the Spring game, but he isn’t built like a tackle and guard is their least pressing matter. The tackles practicing with the twos were both low 3-star redshirt freshmen, #74 OT Miller and #62 OT Lu. Roaten; even though Miller is bigger and Fifita is more experienced, Jeff thinks that the staff will put Roaten in as a backup tackle if something happens to one of the starters, which seems deeply problematic. I also haven’t seen anyone else snap the ball in years since Gomness has monopolized the position. Jeff says the staff thinks #70 C Kylany is the future of the position but he was held out of both the 2022 and 2023 Spring games and he’s never played so I don’t know how he’d do; #65 C Dieu was with the twos in his absence and getting run over by a very thin set of DTs.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 19 Washington State at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images


It’s been a steady climb from ranking in the 100s in defensive F+ for the 2019 and 2020 seasons — just before and in the first abbreviated season when Dickert was hired as DC, and switched the defense to his 4-2-5 — to 43rd in 2021 and 27th in 2022. In my opinion, the two major changes to personnel use in the front during Dickert’s tenure have been responsible for this: the ends and the linebackers.

In re-organizing the defensive line from what had been a 3-down front for as long as I can remember into a straightforward 4-down front (two tackles, two ends) in 2020, Dickert effectively benched several longtime lineman and promoted a couple of ends who would rapidly redefine the Coug defense: #80 DE B. Jackson and #10 DE Stone. Remarkably, these were 2019 recruits whom the previous staff didn’t seem to have on a trajectory to much playing time, but who have had excellent havoc stats each of the last three years under Dickert. They were joined by a 2019 walk-on, #20 DE Roff, who first started seriously playing in 2021 (that’s when he got a scholarship too) and whose numbers are just as good as Jackson and Stone’s. All three return in 2023, and are joined by a trio of 2021 mid 3-stars whose grades as backups aren’t much of a dropoff at all: #95 DE Edson, #50 DE Falatea, and #45 DE Stevenson.

That’s a deep, experienced, and effective group of ends, and by far the strength of this defense. It can be demonstrated fairly simply that this unit was chiefly responsible for 2022’s high F+ defensive rating by examining the overall pass defense grades and then breaking them out situationally. The Cougs had about a 57.5% pass defense success rate (245 successes vs 180 failures), which is pretty good by Pac-12 standards though not quite championship caliber. They limited opponents to 7.7 adjusted YPA, indicating a lot of incomplete passes dragging the average down, but allowed over 17% of attempts to gain 15+ yards, meaning once offenses connected the back end of the defense wasn’t doing a great job of stopping plays from going big.

Situationally, the disparity between 3rd & short and 3rd & long pass defense success rates is enormous. On 3rd down with 3 yards or fewer to go, when the ends have to play the run and so hold back and set the edge, trusting the secondary with the entirety of the pass defense, Wazzu only defended 36% of passing plays successfully – that is, they allowed a 64% conversion rate on such plays. However, on 3rd down with 7 or more yards to go, when the ends don’t have to worry about the run and can just rush the passer, their havoc rate went through the roof and the Cougs won on 72% of plays. It’s clear to me that nearly all of the pass defense comes from the pass rush, not the coverage.

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

The defensive tackles are quite the opposite story, however. They simply didn’t grade out as well, and as Jeff and I discussed on the podcast the lack of bodies here is starting to get concerning. Wazzu lost both of last year’s starters, Christian Mejia and Amir Mujahid, plus one of only three backups who played, Antonio Pule, to graduation. Two tackles who didn’t play last year have transferred out, Ahmir Crowder and Justin Lohrenz.

They return the other two backups, #60 DT Gusta and #15 DT Malani. Gusta had a significant injury and missed his freshman year in 2021, and struggled with some injuries again in 2022 and only played in nine games, but he’s big enough to play the part and graded out alright when he was on the field. Malani came in from Virginia and I thought looked undersized when he arrived, he’s currently listed at 277 lbs and he still looked like he could make another pass at the training table in the Spring game. There are only two other scholarship returners, redshirt junior #97 DT Garay-Harris and redshirt freshman #81 DT McKenzie, neither of whom have seen the field (the statbook says Garay-Harris has appeared in 11 games last season but recorded no stats, I don’t have him on my tally sheet at all in four years and Jeff doesn’t remember seeing him either).

The Cougs have added four players to the unit: three low 3-star prep recruits of whom one, #92 DT Din-Mbuh, enrolled early while the other two, Khalil Laufau and Rocky Shields, arrive in the Fall, plus Colorado transfer Na’im Rodman. I’ve been charting Rodman for a while and think he’s fine, he’ll probably be an instant starter when he arrives in the Fall, although I doubt he’s a transformational player for this defense.

Wazzu was so hard up for tackles in the Spring game with McKenzie held out with an injury that they were playing Din-Mbuh and four walk-ons (one of whom was an offensive lineman) so they could have a first and second line for both teams. For the Fall, just to get up to the five-man rotation they had last year – which wasn’t really adequate – they’ll need Gusta to stay healthy and both Garay-Harris and McKenzie to actually play, none of which has ever happened before. If they can’t find another tackle in the portal before Fall (and they’re getting increasingly scarce), to get a larger rotation they’ll need to use true freshmen or walk-ons, or take Jeff’s suggestion of raiding the depth at end for some 1-DT, 3-DE sets, none of which I’d be sanguine about.

Again, the issue at defensive tackle can be isolated by examining general vs situational rush defense stats. Overall, the Cougs had an almost perfectly average performance for a Power-5 team against the run: 49.5% success (152 vs 156), 4.8 adjusted YPC, and 15% explosive allowed. But in short-yardage, when the tackles really have to step up to stuff the run, Wazzu folded: in each of 2nd & short, 2nd & medium, and 3rd & short, their rush defense success rate was under 35%.

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

The other major personnel shake-up for the better on Dickert’s watch had been at linebacker, where several longtime starters were finally replaced by some new blood in 2022, who significantly improved the grades of this unit. Those new players were Daiyan Henley who’d transferred in from Nevada, Ben Wilson who’d transferred in from TCU, and young backups Travion Brown, Francisco Mauigoa, and #52 LB Thornton who were promoted to starting or primary rotational roles.

However, of that group only Thornton remains for 2023. Henley was drafted in the 3rd round by the Chargers, Brown and Mauigoa transferred to ASU and Miami respectively, and Wilson graduated. Gavin Barthiel, who didn’t play in two years, also transferred out. Other than Thornton, a 2-star from the 2019 class, there are only two returners on scholarship, both redshirt freshmen mid 3-stars who didn’t see the field last year: #18 LB Al-Uqdah and #27 LB Cedarland.

There are five additions to the unit. Two low 3-star prep recruits arrive in the Fall; I expect them to redshirt. The three portal additions are also low 3-stars: Davon Hicks, a junior from USF who wasn’t available in Spring, and redshirt seniors #9 LB McCullough from Maryland and #8 LB Richardson from Texas and New Mexico State before that. They briefly had a fourth transfer, Isaiah Paul from an FCS school in Texas, but Jeff joked that the climate on the Palouse must not have agreed with him because he transferred back out after a couple of Winter months.

I think Thornton probably has a starting job locked down since the coaches seem to trust him, although his grades were the lowest on my tally sheet of that new group of 2022 backers. In the Spring game, the staff seemed to be having a hard time picking between Cedarland and McCullough for the other starter as both were playing with the ones along with Thornton. Jeff and I spent some time talking about this, he said the staff loves Cedarland and considered playing him as a true freshman last year; for my part I think it’s obvious you invest in the freshman if it’s a tossup with a sixth-year player so I’m not sure why the hesitation.

Al-Uqdah and Richardson were with the twos; as Jeff noted, Richardson’s career is odd since the Longhorns seemed eager to get him from the Aggies but then they barely played him in two years, and this is now his third stop. I don’t know anything about Hicks but I have to think that the guys who were available in Spring have the inside track unless he really shows out in Fall camp. Jeff suggested that the portal guys may be higher in the rotation to start the season but Cedarland and Al-Uqdah take over by the end of the year. At any rate, I don’t think any of these guys are future NFL players and I don’t see the same groundwork laid for a repeat of the 2022 takeover, so I’d expect a significant step back for this unit in 2023.

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

The corners lose one of the two starters, Derrick Langford. They return the other, #6 CB Smith-Wade, as well as the only backup who saw the field last year, #29 CB Lampkin (another player who was in jersey #3 in the Spring game, contrary to the official listing). Justin Anderson and Kaleb Ford-Dement transferred out.

There are two redshirt freshmen on scholarship who return, mid 3-star #23 CB Robinson and low 3-star #26 CB D. Johnson. They’ve added five more: low 3-star Kiwaun Davis and mid 3-star Ethan O’Connor arrive in the Fall as freshmen (O’Connor originally signed with UCLA but I’m told there was an academic issue) while mid 3-star #22 CB W. Smith enrolled early. Mid 3-star Juco #5 CB Colson and low 3-star Juco #1 CB Hall were available in the Spring.

Smith-Wade has a starting job locked down (there’s an extended metaphor developed on the podcast about secondary starters at Wazzu being extraordinarily long-lived), and Lampkin was playing opposite of him with the ones as expected. Given the complete inexperience of the returning freshmen and how spread out among the twos and second line of the ones in the Spring game the walk-ons and early enrollees were, my guess is that the Cougs will simply go with whichever of the Jucos looks better as the backup, probably Colson, and per the habit of this squad everybody else will ride the bench and eventually transfer out.

Wazzu’s longtime starting nickel Armani Marsh has graduated, but surprisingly his backup, Armauni Archie, transferred to UConn instead of taking his job as anticipated. I saw four safeties playing nickel in the Spring game: new Juco #4 DB Gushiken and returners #2 DB C. Jackson, #36 DB Kinchen, and #30 DB Lataimua (though I barely saw any of them on the field last year to form an opinion).

Kinchen is a walk-on who was with the second line of the twos, I think he’s not really a serious candidate for the starting job and was just in so they had a complete rotation. But it’s a tight contest among the other three and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were still a very active battle throughout Fall camp. Given how heated this is I’m sure the winner and backup will be fine, and whoever comes in third would be a good candidate at backup strong safety as well.

Both of the starters at strong and free safety return, #25 DB J. Hicks (no relation to George Hicks, the longtime starter in the Cougs’ backfield who’s now a GA), and #0 DB Lockett, respectively. They lost Jordan Lee to graduation, he played a peculiar role that was sometimes a backup strong safety and other times a dime player but more of a hybrid linebacker. Per usual, four redshirt freshmen safeties transferred out without playing: Tony Carter, Hunter Escorcia, Bryce Grays, and Adrian Shepherd (Grays appeared in the Spring game before hitting the portal).

Hicks grades out fairly well as a tackler and leads all returners on the team, though his coverage grades are mediocre. Lockett, however, has the worst grades of any returner on my tally sheet and among the lowest of any defensive back I observed last year; Jeff wasn’t shy in his criticism but I’ll simply quote him as saying that the former Juco is “not a Pac-12 athlete.” But I don’t see anyone on the roster right now who might challenge for Lockett’s job, the only other free safety who appeared in the Spring game was a 2-star redshirt freshman, #28 DB Sylvester. The one chance they might have is if Utah State transfer Dominic Tatum can switch positions when he arrives in the Fall, he was playing something like a slot corner in his old defense. Tatum was a low 3-star from the 2019 cycle and there were six defensive backs on his team with more tackles than him last year as a fourth-year player, but needs must.

Accountability Corner

Last year’s preview described Morris’ offense and the quarterback situation pretty accurately, including the lack of any backup QB to turn to if Ward were unavailable (which didn’t happen) or if they needed to try another option against FBS defenses (which arguably did). I got the order of running backs right, which required shooting down the suggestion that Schlenbaker would take over – I correctly figured it’d be still be Watson with Jenkins as the second guy in, though I was blindsided by Watson improving his average by over two yards a carry. This is the second year out of three that’s happened with a Wazzu back (it was Deon McIntosh in 2020 the last time), but it’s a different offense with new RB and OL coaches so I think that’s just a coincidence. I thought the new tight end room wasn’t ready for prime time yet and that was basically correct, including the prediction that Dollar wasn’t going to play, though I also thought Riviere wasn’t a real option and he got a few catches. I’ll take a hit on that one, I had all the pieces I needed for it – they were going to use TEs at least a little and in a room where no one had a catch Riviere had the most playing experience, so I should have guessed it’d default to him instead of guessing they’d go with no one and roll four-wide the entire season instead. The wideout predictions were 100% correct (which considering how much they lost from 2021 makes me feel pretty good); I didn’t know about Beason’s eligibility thing, Peters took his spot but he was on my list of guys who might do so. I got four of the five o-line starters right, not bad considering they lost had lost two starting tackles and two more guys from a four-man rotation at the guard spots. I just missed on Stephens although I did have him pegged as the primary interior backup. I had Tialevea as starting RG which was way off, he didn’t play at all and I didn’t even see him with the twos in the 2023 Spring game so beats me what’s up with him. I also predicted correctly that the starting tackles would perform poorly, but while I named Fa’amoe as the likely backup I didn’t think he would straight-up replace Fifita for performance.

Defensively, I noted that much of Wazzu’s jump in the rankings from the 100s to 43rd was probably due to extraordinary fumble luck (the 27 fumbles their opponents committed in 2021 was the most in the country), and that this wasn’t replicable. Of course the latter assertion was true and their fumbles-forced fell back to earth in 2022, and I still believe that a good chunk of their overall jump in 2021 was due to that fumble luck — their ranking would have been somewhere in the 60s I think if they had a normal amount — and so I was thinking they’d stay somewhere in the 40s in 2022. But instead they climbed up substantially, and the reason for that I think came down to the linebackers – I wasn’t a believer in Henley’s film from Nevada at all and he really proved me wrong, and the backups who hadn’t seen much playing time because the longtime starters kept them off the field turned out to be better than I thought as well. Henley is something of a black-swan event, a 2-star who goes from a G5 to the lowest talent P5 and then is drafted in the 3rd round is so fantastically rare that everybody misses them, though there are some talent scouts more gifted than I am who said they spotted natural attributes that I hadn’t. Otherwise, I got almost everything else perfectly right: every one of the ends and their quality, every one of the tackles (except Crowder not playing, that was weird) and their quality, every one of the linebacker personnel and quality relative to each other though not in absolute terms, and all the members of the secondary except I had Lee as the starting strong safety instead of the backup (I didn’t even mention Hicks, he didn’t play in Spring and came out of nowhere in Fall camp to win the job).

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