PULLMAN – There’s no telling whether Washington State’s football team will be able to maintain its streak of consecutive bowl appearances this fall (in seasons played with more than four games, that is) but after 15 practices in April, one can be sure the Cougars will be a more polished product in 2021 than they would’ve been without a spring camp period – the brutal reality Nick Rolovich’s program had to come to terms with last year.
“None of that looked like the fall to me,” Rolovich said. “I think they’ve done a nice job. I do think they plateaued offensively toward the end of spring, for various reasons probably, but I do think their effort and their want to be good – I think it’s very important to them, the journey they’re on as part of this football team.”
The most important part of that journey will commence in August when the Cougars regroup in Pullman for fall camp and a full 12-game slate that opens on Sept. 4 at home against Utah State, ideally in front of at least 10,000-15,000 fans at Martin Stadium.
For now, we rewind the short practice period that just wrapped up by offering five takeaways from Rolovich’s first spring camp as WSU’s coach.
1. Quarterback is still a quandary
The real competition begins in August, although that should hardly come as a surprise for anyone who’s been tracking Washington State’s quarterback race.
Spring camp was never going to provide much clarity, if any at all, on who’d take the first snaps of the 2021 season, but there was a chance returning backup Cammon Cooper and Tennessee graduate transfer Jarrett Guarantano would be able to gain a step on incumbent starter Jayden de Laura, who observed spring drills from windows inside the weight room as he missed all 15 practices due to a suspension.
De Laura may have some rust to shake off when he returns in August, but based on comments made by Nick Rolovich after WSU’s final spring practice, the Honolulu native won’t be at a major disadvantage when the team opens fall camp in Pullman.
Rolovich commended Cooper in Thursday’s post-practice interview, saying the redshirt junior “is way more comfortable in what we’re doing. I think he has some anticipation, I think he’s playing looser, I think he’s playing with more confidence.”
But when Rolovich was asked if he though Cooper had separated from Guarantano, or vice versa, the second-year coach said it wasn’t a topic he’d spent much time pondering over the last month. Neither is good enough at this juncture.
“I don’t think the separation is the discussion right now because I don’t think we’re good enough at that position,” Rolovich said. “So, they need to continue to get better throughout the summer and into training camp.”
The Cougars are still months away from landing on a starting quarterback, but Rolovich has been encouraged by the mentality and work ethic of the players competing for the job. He’s confident consistency and execution will come with time.
“Everybody knows when you go to a QB room, one guy’s going to play,” he said. “So, once that elephant in the room is accepted and you don’t worry about what the other guy does, you just worry about your reps and your decision-making and your balls and don’t let somebody else’s performance pressure you into bad decisions, I think you see an elevation in the whole group.
“But we strive to be the best quarterback room top to bottom in the country, and we’ve got a little ways to go in my opinion.”
2. Safety isn’t settled either
Traditionally, WSU’s issues in the defensive secondary have lied at cornerback, while the safety positions have churned out NFL players like Deone Bucannon, Shalom Luani and Jalen Thompson.
In 2021, things may be reversed.
Jaylen Watson projects to be the star of WSU’s secondary, and fellow cornerback Derrick Langford may have turned in the best spring camp of any defensive player on the roster. George Hicks III, Chau Smith-Wade and Chris Jackson should pad one of the deepest cornerback groups the Cougars have had in awhile.
Meanwhile, questions at safety loom large.
The group experienced major attrition in the offseason, first when hard-hitting Tyrese Ross entered the transfer portal, eventually landing at South Carolina, and then when Ayden Hector, the most promising defensive freshman on the roster in 2020, was suspended for an off-field incident, and left the team shortly thereafter. Another returning starter, Daniel Isom, suffered an undisclosed injury midway through camp and only returned as a partial participant for the final practice, while redshirt senior Chad Davis Jr. missed the final four practices.
Isom, who played well enough to earn All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention in 2020, should give the group some stability this fall as he makes the switch from free to strong safety. But next to Isom, the Cougars may need to rely on sophomore Hunter Escorcia, who started in one game last year and made brief cameos in the other three, or junior Halid Djibril, who’s making the switch from free safety nickel. Davis Jr., who didn’t appear in 2020 and played mostly special teams in 2019, is the only other scholarship safety who’s spent more than a year with the program.
In other words, it’ll be imperative that Isom stays healthy this fall, and the Cougars have to hope whoever fills the other safety position can rise to the occasion when Pac-12 competition begins, although nothing is a given at this point.
3. The MVPs were…After the 14th spring practice, Deon McIntosh told reporters he was about five pounds from the playing weight (200 pounds) he hopes to sustain this fall. Meanwhile, the sixth-year senior seems nowhere close to reaching his potential as a college running back.
When Rolovich was asked on Thursday to select offensive and defensive standouts from the monthlong spring camp period, he immediately landed on McIntosh as his top offensive choice.
“I would say Deon McIntosh would be in that conversation,” the coach said.
Max Borghi sustained a minor lower-body injury midway through spring camp, placing McIntosh into a role he grew familiar with last fall, when the tough, shifty tailback rushed for 323 yards and three touchdowns while Borghi nursed a back injury. McIntosh hasn’t lost his ability to explode through running holes and the Florida native broke off chunk plays all spring, rushing five times for 38 yards in the spring game while totaling six carries for 60 yards in the other two scrimmages.
This fall, McIntosh says he hopes to do a better job of making the first defender miss – “getting out there and running the ball, one man with the safety and making that one man miss and scoring in the end zone,” he said – and he anticipates big things from WSU’s rushing attack in 2021, something fans got a brief glimpse of when McIntosh and Borghi combined for 104 yards and two touchdowns against Utah.
“That’s not even half of it, man,” McIntosh said. “This whole season coming, it’s gonna be crazy. So if that was exciting to see, you’re in for a long run.”
Rolovich also mentioned two offensive line starters – right tackle Abe Lucas and center Brian Greene – as players who excelled during the spring camp period.
Defensively, WSU’s head coach highlighted Ron Stone Jr., who should be one of the team’s most productive edge rushers in the fall. Rolovich anticipates Stone Jr., a defensive captain and one of the most infectious personalities in the locker room, to bring much more than that to the table in 2021.
“I saw a rise in RJ Stone, who has an incredible personality that’s very magnetic,” Rolovich said. “… He has the ability, just by his gift of personality, to be a tremendous influencer, leader on this team and I think Coop ( coach AJ Cooper) has done a nice job growing him, and I think (Stone) has done a nice job accepting that, using that skill and his personality more and more positively for the team.”
Another unanimous camp standout was Langford, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound cornerback who transferred in 2019 from City College of San Francisco. Langford came to WSU with the measurables to play at the Pac-12 level, but coaches and teammates have indicated he’s adapted to the speed of the game and finds himself in better positions to make plays in year three with the program.
“I think D-Lang really stepped up his game, accepted the challenge J-Rich (corners coach John Richardson) gave him and became a better player this spring,” Rolovich said. “Really happy with the cornerback position.”
4. Camaraderie is key
Rolovich and company eyed spring camp as an opportunity to improve camaraderie within WSU’s program – something that, like almost everything else in 2020, was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, the Cougars made an effort to squeeze in as many team-bonding opportunities as they could during the nearly month-long camp period, while still maintaining proper focus when helmets and shoulder pads came on.
In a belated Easter celebration, the Cougars hosted an egg hunt on the turf of Martin Stadium. Plastic eggs contained ticket numbers correlating to specific gifts. Some of those were WSU apparel items like T-shirts and hats, while other tickets gave players the right to pie a teammate on the opposite side of the ball, a position coach or Rolovich.
After WSU’s spring game, offensive and defensive players took part in a water balloon fight, pelting one another and occasionally launching a surprise attack on an unsuspecting coach.
Rolovich also introduced “Super Fun Thursdays” as a way to improve relations between fans and players/coaches. Twice during camp, the head coach surveyed fans on social media for press conference questions, both serious and lighthearted, then relayed those inquiries during post-practice Zoom interviews. Media calls normally moderated by sports information directors were instead moderated by Rolovich and Stone Jr.
On the final day of camp, various offensive skill players performed jersey swaps.
Rolovich pointed to “camaraderie” as the most important thing the Cougars gained during camp.
“Understanding that we’ll need each side of the ball to win football games,” Rolovich said. “I thought the competition was healthy yet at a high level. You hear these terms, ‘practice like a pro.’ There was a lot of fun in practice, there was a lot of I think light jawing where nobody took it personal, but it led to greater enjoyment and higher intensity when there was competition. I think they took care of each other. What a group to be around and I just think they will play the game in a way Cougs will appreciate.”
5. Only so much can be gleaned
Make no mistake, spring camp serves an important purpose and it served an especially important one for a WSU team that didn’t get the benefit of 15 practices last year at the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Furthermore, the Cougars played just four games last fall – a fraction of those played by many of their Power Five/Pac-12 peers – and had nearly two weeks of practices wiped out by a midseason COVID-19 outbreak. Moral victories count more than ever, so that the Cougars made it through an entire spring slate without interruption should go down as a major triumph for Rolovich’s young program.
But don’t try to draw too many overarching conclusions from what you read about the Cougars this spring, what you heard from a friend, what you saw on a scrimmage stat sheet or what you observed on the television broadcast of the Crimson and Gray game.
The Cougars didn’t hold a single practice with their starting quarterback, de Laura. Max Borghi, who projects as WSU’s top weapon on offense, sat out the spring game and missed the second half of spring camp with an undisclosed lower-body injury.
Wide receiver Renard Bell, left tackle Liam Ryan and left guard Jarrett Kingston all had injuries that kept them out of at least two or three practices, while defensive fixtures such as Isom and edge rushers Willie Taylor III and Brennan Jackson each missed time. Defensive tackle Dallas Hobbs spent the entirety of camp working with strength coaches to rehab the foot injury he sustained in the 2020 finale at Utah.
Fall camp will offer a more complete picture of what the Cougars have in 2021, not only because many of the aforementioned players will be cleared to practice, but because the team will welcome another influx of newcomers. A handful enrolled early and participated in spring drills, but at least 15 more will arrive in the fall. Given the role true freshman played last fall, it’s not unlikely two or three will find themselves on the two-deep come September, particularly at spots where the Cougars desperately need more depth.