PULLMAN — Yogi Roth, an encyclopedia of knowledge when it comes to Pac-12 Conference football, believes another double-digit win season could be in store for the Washington State football program.
Roth’s training camp tour of the Pac-12 stopped in Pullman last Friday, in conjunction with the Cougars’ 13th preseason practice. The Pac-12 Network analyst observed WSU after a stop at Eastern Washington earlier in the day (Roth will be on the call for EWU’s opener at Washington). Mike Leach, who Roth considers a longtime friend, invited the TV analyst/filmmaker/author to speak to the football team about the media and the importance of “seeking your story.”
He also interviewed offensive line coach Mason Miller, wide receiver Easop Winston Jr. and nose tackle Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei for a podcast segment released Tuesday on The Yogi Roth Show.
On his way back to Spokane, Roth took approximately 30 minutes to answer our questions about the 2019 Cougars. He reflected on the team’s historic 11-2 win season, handicapped the quarterback race — and brought up the QB storyline few are talking about — raved about the Cougars’ young wide receivers and talked about his relationship with Leach.
Theo Lawson: Has this program gotten to the point where, regardless of who the Cougars lose, they’re consistently going to be in the picture to win eight, nine, 10 games?
Yogi Roth: “I think if you do your homework, it’s a no-brainer. If you’re playing in the sandbox, then yeah, you probably wouldn’t get that. But if you watch how you evaluate and then guys like Willie Taylor. Players like that, how they develop — obviously Andre Dillard’s the best example, everybody’s not going to be a first-round draft pick. But I just think doing their signing day the last eight years and watching since coach Leach took over how they recruit, how they identify, how they develop and then their scheme, they’re hard to stop. And I think it’s often forgot is the facts of, they’ve beaten Stanford the last three years, they’ve beaten Oregon the last four, I think. Those are huge programs. So I think that’s the expectation now. That’s the standard now, and I don’t think last year was lightning in a bottle, and everybody needs help and needs luck and they got some, if you look at the Cal game for instance. You could also flip it and say UW got lucky with the weather. Who knows if that’s played on a non-snowy, rainy, cold-type night? So yeah I think they’re a seven, eight-win team at minimal, and double-digit wins is not unrealistic every year.”
TL: I’ll go straight to the QBs. What do you think about both of the players competing (Anthony Gordon and Gage Gubrud) and what are your thoughts on bringing in a second straight graduate transfer?
YR: “Yeah, I think it is a lot to talk about there. I’ll start with what you didn’t ask, but I think it’s a really healthy scenario for the quarterback room, when you look at three guys that are going to depart. So if you’re Camm Cooper, if you’re Gunner Cruz or if you’re one of those other players, this is a great year for you to — and I call it your emotional intelligence, like, your capacity to be able to deal with your emotions and the reality of your scenario, is going to be huge for this program. And nobody’s going to write about that all season long for obvious reasons, but if they’re just like ‘Yeah, I’m not going to play. Whatever, I’m third, fourth string,’ it’s not going to be a good thing for the program. And I don’t think they will. What’s going on there is going to allow for a really focused room. So then to spin it forward to the group that’s competing for that job, I don’t think it’s an issue having a graduate transfer because I don’t think it’s going to become the norm at Washington State. I think we have to be truth-tellers and see how unique this one was. Literally him being down the road, how he played against them, even his situation. I was there earlier this morning. Think about, have you ever seen a situation where you get hurt at quarterback and you need your team to win out to get to 15 games so you can appeal to get a sixth year. If they lose in the semis, his career’s done and he’s in a minicamp right now, or he’s in a training camp right now, or he’s in Canada right now, or he’s done playing football forever. I just think that’s really unique, and as I think this situation’s really unique. I heard from a boatload of really gifted grad transfers who wanted to go to Washington State. So everybody’s going to want to go. I think Mike Leach does as good of a job as anybody of identifying what he needs, and if that personality can fit within his program. So I don’t have a problem with it, to answer your question. I don’t see it like Oregon a couple years ago as, we’ve got to bring in these quick fixes. Vernon Adams was one thing, Dakota Prukop was another, and it was kind of like a vogue thing. Everybody was trying to get the grad transfer quarterback. Now there’s so many grad transfer quarterbacks and I don’t think there’s enough spots. You look at where guys are trying to go. So, not worried about that. Overall the idea of the competition between Gage and Anthony, I’ve obviously saw only one practice but I saw a lot of really good things from both of those guys. Number one, operating the offense. You watch where their eyes go and this is a pure progression system. And you know this, but from one to two to three and not being a ‘cover scientist’ is a huge key. I thought today they both did a really nice job of getting through their progressions, getting the ball out. They’re both seasoned in different ways. Anthony’s seasoned in the system, Gage is seasoned as a player. It’s easy to forget what he’s done because we just see big numbers, but I dove into prepping for Eastern Washington-UW yesterday and it’s like, no, this guy’s won a lot of big games. He’s played on a bunch of stages and today you see him make that throw for a touchdown on the run in the back of the end zone, and you’re like ‘Oh.’ And he’s got some of that stuff to him – extending plays. I don’t think it’s hard-pressed to say he’s probably the best athlete Mike’s had, at least at Washington State playing quarterback, potentially. Then you look at Anthony and the way the ball came off his hand, I’ve got to be honest, that stood out to me. That was not lost on me. I call it, can the ball speak? And his ball could speak. It could finish on the facemask, the revolutions were really tight. He made full-field throws and the ball didn’t die. So I walked out of today saying they’re going to be fine, but I couldn’t pick a guy, at least not on one day’s snapshot. Every time I was going ‘It’s Anthony,’ Gage would come back with a drive. Every time I said, ‘Wow, Gage did that,’ Anthony would come back and rip a seam. So I wish I could get on the table for a guy, I’d love to, but I think it’s hard. So I think it will come down to feel, which I think head coaches love that part of the job, of having to feel out who’s right and when to make that call.”
TL: How does WSU’s receivers group stack up against the rest of the conference? where do you think they’d rank nationally?
YR: “Yeah, easily top-10 group in the nation. I think very comparable to USC’s. I watched them run around and you look at Tay Martin, Easop Winston, Dezmon Patmon, and then you meet them in person and see how big they really are. Let alone the redshirt freshman, Rodrick Fisher. I mean, he looks the part. Then you look at some of the young guys, 13 (Donovan Ollie), the other big dude (Brandon Gray). Just huge humans. I mean, they look the part. As does SC. I think they collectively, if you took the top four at SC, you can make arguments for the top four at Washington State. Amon-Ra St. Brown in the slot, he’s special. But there’s a world when you look at Easop Winston and/or Dezmon Patmon and/or Tay Martin versus Tyler Vaughns, Michael Pittman Jr. and Devon Williams … we can pick apart where their games are today, and I bet it nets out positive. … When Devon Williams is a senior, maybe it’s a different story because he’s just freakish. But yeah, I think it’s totally fair, and I would take either receiving corps and I wouldn’t flinch. I don’t think USC’s that much better and I don’t think Washington State’s that much better. I think you can argue for both. So it’s worth the praise, and the thing I love most about them is, they’re running the same passing game for the most part. At least similar. It’s going to be really fun to study these teams. And then for Washington State, you might give them a leg up because the upperclassmen have been running these routes for so long. I sat in the receiver meeting and the way they talk in that room and the detail in which they talk about the littlest and most minute elements of wideout, it brought me back to playing. It was awesome. And to watch those guys do it on the film or do it on the practice field, it’s really impressive, man. I can’t wait to see them play Utah, to play UW, to see them play teams with elite secondaries like Cal. It’s going to be awesome to watch those three games.”
TL: After this many years of making steady improvements on the defense, are the Cougars still a little underrated on that side of the ball?
YR: “Probably. I bet the average fan couldn’t name more than three players. They’d probably say Jahad Woods, maybe Willie Taylor and who knows. Could they get all the way to the secondary? But yeah, if you look at the scheme they play and the guys they have, the way they’ve recruited. Fa’avae Fa’avae for instance. I remember when he signed and you said, ‘Yep, he’s going to be a dude.’ And I was talking to (SID) Bill Stevens today, and if you took a picture of some of those young interior linemen or the guys even starting now, like Misi (Aiolupotea-Pei), and you took his lower body and then put in there Logan Tago, you put in Hercules. If you compare the body types of Hercules Mata’afa, Logan Tago and the guys starting now like Misi, they’re comparable. How thick they are. Some better athletically, like Hercules was a freak. But I think coming off the edge, Dominick Silvels is a freak. I think they have a really talented defense, in my opinion. Where they’re going to get tested is Houston. D’Eriq King is real. I was with him this summer, he can deal, he can move. But the front I think will be fine, the secondary’s going to have to grow a little bit. Who’s the JC transfer, (Derrick) Langford? Talented player. I liked some of the safeties they were plugging in today I got to watch and how they move, and physically, they might be more gifted than the guys they have in the past.”
TL: Was there one player you didn’t know much about before you came to practice, but left impressed with?
YR: “I think Rodrick Fisher was impressive. Him and (Ollie), the young receivers. I think those young receivers that are trees. They’re big and long and athletic. I was like, ‘Whoa, they’re just reloading at that position.’ And they’re big. They’re going to challenge a lot of DBs and be able to pluck it away from them. So I think him, in terms of a guy I didn’t know a ton about. But I would say Easop Winston. … We talked about how they do a lot of work in the shadows, was his quote. And I can tell he’s nuanced his game. He’s got little things he’s doing at the top of routes with his hands, against press coverage, in tight red-zone throws. That was impressive, and I could say that about the whole corps being in the room. Even Dezmon Patmon. These guys have an impressive understanding of the craft. I think a knock on offenses that the throw the ball all over is, ‘Oh they only just run seam routes and that’s it, and they can’t play the position.’ I disagree, you look at three or four guys at receiver. They can play the position. I’d probably go there.”
TL: Projecting the Cougars in the Pac-12 North, where do you think this team finishes?
YR: “I think they’ve got a chance, and based on what we know today — I’ve been to nine of the 12 — I think they have a real chance to get double-digit wins again. I really do. Because think about it, they’re going to score. Now, teams that have had their number in games, at least slowed their offense down, has been Cal and Washington. And there’s a bunch of reasons one may or may not argue, but overall they’ve scored, and last year the average team who won in a Pac-12 Conference game scored 34 points per game. The year before was 38, the year before was 40. So it’s trending down, but they’re still scoring. I think they’ll have a chance to get to 10. There’s a couple that are circle games. The ones we will reference. So that’s to me kind of the range, without watching their quarterback play when it’s real yet. But yeah, I’d probably say between 7 and 10. Max Borghi was impressive today, too. I forgot about him.”
TL: What might be the one obstacle that would prevent this team from reaching eight, nine or 10 wins?
YR: “I think a quarterback has to make three big-time throws a game in big-time games. And this quarterback, whoever it is, is going to have the opportunity to make a lot of throws a game. Like last year, Gardner Minshew’s throw against Stanford down the seam, over the linebacker’s hand. Big-time throw. Utah, big-time throw, not necessarily just on the go route, but the touchdown to Dez Patmon. A big-time throw at USC to Easop Winston for a touchdown. Can they make three difficult, big-time throws a game? And that’s just unknown to me, because one’s never played meaningful downs that I can recall in Anthony Gordon, and the other one hasn’t consistently played at this level, against this defense, against these defenses. I think that’s the biggest thing, can whoever do it do that versus having to deal with the natural growing pains of playing in a league for the first time that they haven’t?”
TL: Are you looking forward to the HBO “Hard Knocks” segment on WSU this fall?
YR: “I really think Mike Leach is more intriguing than Nick Saban or Dabo Swinney, right now. With what they did last year, how social media’s taken off, the E: 60 piece. So I think there’s as much intrigue to see, how does Washington State do what they do and what’s it like in this community, as much as it is, how does Nick Saban continue to do it year after year after year? And I know that might sound like crazy, but I really think a lot of football fans on the East Coast are like, ‘What’s going on there, what’s that like?’ And recruits, all they’re seeing is numbers. Like, ‘Oh my god, I can catch X number of balls, I can throw for X number of yards, I can get drafted at safety, I can get drafted as an O-lineman, be an All-American.’ So I think it’s a perfect storm for them in recruiting, and it would only elevate the program. I’m a fan of access content, I think everything is shown pretty much anyway now, so you might as well put it in a place that sells different stories of your program.”
TL: Last year, when you had Mike Leach on the Pac-12 Networks set after the win over Utah, he alluded to his late-night phone conversations with you. Do any one or two of those stand out?
YR: “I mean, they’re all amazing. The thing I remember the most is we never talk about football and sometimes I need a football nugget because it’s like, hey, you’re calling a game. But I do love our talks, and I talked to the team about it today, college is about conversations in my opinion, and college is a natural catalyst to conversation. And Mike is all about conversation. He’s the most curious man, and I’m driven by curiosity as well, so we talk about politics, we talk about religion, we talk about sport. We talk about other coaches, different philosophical approaches, we talk about food. A lot of times we talk about travel. He’ll call me and say, ‘Why don’t you tell me about Bali? When you lived in Australia, what was it like?’ … I think, we always kind of joke about it, we should do a travel show together. Because we do have this kinship that, there’s some foundational differences, but there’s a boatload of foundational similarities. I consider Mike a friend, I think he would consider me that as well. I guess it always ends on, when are you going to come surfing with me? He’s been saying he’s going to do it for the last couple of years and still hasn’t done it.”
TL: Does Mike Leach know how to surf?
YR: “Yeah, he was at Pepperdine, he was surfing all the time.”