PULLMAN – Technically, Jake Dickert is a first-year head coach. So, it’s only natural that he’s feeling a bit of “nervous energy” on the eve of his Washington State football team’s first day of fall camp.
But he’s uniquely prepared for the moment. When the Cougs begin preseason exercises Wednesday morning, it won’t be Dickert’s debut on the WSU sidelines.
“Pushing through last year – experience is life’s greatest teacher because it gives you perspective,” Dickert said Tuesday. “I’ve had an opportunity to get a perspective on what the preparation is like and what it takes.”
After a year and some change serving as WSU’s defensive coordinator, Dickert became the Cougars’ interim coach in mid-October, when second-year coach Nick Rolovich was dismissed for failing to comply with the state’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate. Dickert, assisted by a makeshift staff, earned the permanent job in late November after guiding WSU to bowl eligibility and an Apple Cup victory – a remarkable finish for the Cougars, considering their midseason turmoil.
“I’m 100% going to lean on (what I learned) last season,” Dickert said. “There’s going to be a confidence to it. … Whenever adversity comes, our team can handle it, our coaches can handle it.”
Dickert put his stamp on WSU’s program this offseason. He overhauled the team’s staff, reworked the roster – adding a few immediate-impact recruits – and switched up its offensive system, replacing Rolovich’s run-and-shoot with a versatile version of the Air Raid.
The man in charge remains the same. Otherwise, it’s a “New Wazzu” – Dickert’s tagline for his revamped team. Coug fans got a taste of it during spring camp in April, but the “New Wazzu” will make its debut in earnest when fall camp opens at 9 a.m. Wednesday at Rogers Field.
“This isn’t spring ball. This is here, for real,” Dickert said. “There’s just a buzz about the building today. If you’re a football person, which I believe I am to my core, you love fall camp. You love the teaching, you love the time, you love the moments you’re sharing together.
“To have the first opportunity to really shape fall camp in our vision is something that’s unique and different,” he added. “It’s a different lens, a different feeling and I’m just excited to really implement the plan, starting tomorrow morning.”
Outside of Pullman, the Cougs have drawn mixed predictions ahead of this season – perhaps owing to the uncertainties surrounding a new-look staff and a freshly installed offensive system that will be captained by a transfer quarterback. WSU was picked by media members to finish seventh in the Pac-12.
Yet there’s been no shortage of hype from the Cougar faithful, who see their team as a darkhorse contender in the conference.
“I think one of those most overrated things in all of sports is preseason polls, and that’s not a shot at the media,” Dickert said. “I know, at Washington State, we’re used to being the underdogs and maybe being overlooked and all those things, but it really has nothing to do with the focus and attention in what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s all about the belief we have in this building. … We’re excited about focusing on and knowing that we have enough talent every Saturday to sing the school song that we love to after all of our wins.”
Much of the offseason chatter has revolved around WSU’s Air Raid offense and transfer QB Cameron Ward, a rocket-armed sophomore who exhibited star potential in spring camp. Ward steered the same offense to great success over the past two seasons while quarterbacking Incarnate Word under coach Eric Morris – the new offensive coordinator at WSU.
“I’m a believer in Cam Ward,” Dickert said last week at the Pac-12’s media day in Los Angeles.
Ward will benefit from a deep receiving corps that returns its top outside targets in De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie, and brings back standout slotbacks Lincoln Victor and Renard Bell.
Bell, a seventh-year senior who has amassed 1,656 yards and 16 touchdowns in a Cougar uniform, missed last season while recovering from an ACL injury and participated sparingly at spring camp.
“Renard Bell has been amazing,” Dickert said, adding that Bell will be “back and ready to go” on Wednesday. “The energy he brings, the leadership capabilities, and he’s 10-15 pounds heavier. He’s not just running the way he used to run, but he looks physically different, and that’s a big-time playmaker that we have back in the fold that a lot of people have forgotten about.”
If Ward can stay upright, the Cougs’ passing game should make for must-watch TV. WSU’s offensive line will be a work in progress following the graduation of longtime tackles Abraham Lucas and Liam Ryan. The Cougs appear to have found their new O-line leader in sophomore center Konner Gomness, who was thrust into action early last season in relief of injured senior Brian Greene and ended up starting eight games.
“(Gomness) has demonstrated that he’s one of the hardest workers in there,” Dickert said, singling out Gomness and Bell when asked about players to keep an eye on.
WSU’s running-back position will presumably also need some time to develop. The Cougars’ top two ballcarriers from last season, Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh, have both completed their collegiate careers. The tight ends are another group to watch. WSU hasn’t employed TEs in about a decade, but reintroduced the position with the “Coug Raid” offense.
Defensively, the Cougs are well-positioned after a resurgent 2021 season. WSU established itself as one of the most consistent defensive teams in the Pac-12 and finished the year fifth nationally in turnovers gained, and the Cougars aren’t expecting to take a step back under first-year defensive coordinator Brian Ward – the former Nevada DC who shares coaching philosophies with Dickert.
“Just the experience we have on that defense – it’s a real veteran group,” first-team All-Pac-12 edge Ron Stone Jr. said at media day. “At basically every position, there’s a guy that’s played a lot of football.”
WSU returns every key contributor from its disruptive defensive line, headlined by the spirited edge-rushing duo of Brennan Jackson and Stone – who recently landed on watch lists for the Chuck Bednarik Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, both of which recognize the nation’s best defensive player.
The Cougs lost mainstay linebackers Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers to graduation, but they restocked with a professional prospect in senior Nevada transfer outside LB Daiyan Henley and are optimistic about their options at middle linebacker.
Spokane native nickel Armani Marsh will reprise his role as a captain in the WSU secondary, which lost star cornerback Jaylen Watson to the NFL and had its three top safeties graduate after the 2021 season. The Cougs seem confident with their remaining depth at CB, and they brought in senior Nevada transfer Jordan Lee to take over at strong safety. WSU’s primary questions on defense: Are the CBs settled? Who starts at free safety?
Dickert declined to get into specifics when asked which position battles he’s highlighted for extra emphasis. Instead, he shined a light on the Cougs’ rich supply of veteran leaders, who helped ease his transition from interim to permanent coach.
“There are just some foundational people in our program that we’re excited to lean on, and lean on during some adversity that we know is coming throughout this season,” he said. “Everything we’ve been working on since Jan. 9 (when WSU’s new on-field staff was completed) – it’s easy to build when you don’t face adversity in those moments. Now, with what we’ve built, can we withstand those storms? Because the storms are coming.”
Without specifying who, Dickert said some players will be limited participants in the early stages of fall camp.
“There’s certain guys that will be on a pitch count,” he said. “Once you get over 800 to 1,000 live game reps played, there’s only so many hits in your body. … A lot of those live-action reps will be a little bit limited for some guys, more in a calculated way and an evaluation standpoint for some of the other (less experienced) guys.”