In a brief Zoom meeting with reporters Thursday, Washington State coach Nick Rolovich previewed preseason camp, responding to questions about the looming quarterback battle, his controversial decision not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and other topics surrounding the Cougars in 2021.
Some questions won’t have answers until the end of August, though. Before camp opens Friday morning in Pullman, we dive into 10 questions the Cougars will need to answer before the season opener against Utah State.
1. Is three weeks enough time for one QB to separate himself from the group?
At some point during preseason camp, likely about seven to 14 days before the season opener, Rolovich’s hand will be forced and he’ll have to select a starting quarterback. This will happen regardless of whether one of the three contenders, Jayden de Laura, Jarrett Guarantano or Cammon Cooper, emerges as a front-runner. It’s not only important for the starter to take as many reps as he can get – something that can’t happen if two or three players are still splitting them equally – but identifying that person with ample time before the opener is critical for the dynamic of the locker room.
In making the decision, Rolovich said he’ll be looking for someone who can “establish belief in his teammates and trust. Combine that with who is able to move the ball down the field consistently.”
Ideally, de Laura, Guarantano or Cooper will emerge from the pack and demonstrate the leadership, execution and confidence Rolovich needs to see from his starter, but there’s no guarantee that happens over the course of 25 practices. WSU’s coaching staff will choose a starting QB one way or the other, but if one of the three contenders can give them closure over the next four weeks – the same way de Laura, Anthony Gordon and Gardner Minshew did the previous three years – the Cougars will be in a much better spot entering the 2021 season.
2. Will WSU make it through camp without COVID-19 interruptions or distractions?
This isn’t just a question the Cougars have to face in August, but nearly every college football program in America. Granted, it’s become a much more prevalent topic in Pullman over the past three weeks since Rolovich went public with his decision not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. At Pac-12 Media Day, athletic director Pat Chun revealed WSU’s football team reached a vaccination rate of 75% – one of the lowest numbers in the conference. Rolovich didn’t have an update on WSU’s team vaccination rate, or the vaccination rate of his coaching staff, during Thursday’s news conference, and indicated his stance on getting a vaccine is unchanged.
If WSU players have to miss time during preseason camp because of COVID-19 absences, let alone miss games this fall, Rolovich’s vaccine decision and leadership will come into focus again. Either way, the delta variant could have a say in whether the Cougars and their Pac-12 peers are able to make it through a 12-game football season, or even preseason camp, without any kind of pause.
3. With no Renard Bell or Jamire Calvin, how do the Cougars move forward at WR?
In the past, WSU’s depth and top-end talent at wide receiver was something fans may have taken for granted.
The Cougars were so rich at the position that two NFL wideouts – Dezmon Patmon, who was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts, and Easop Winston Jr., who may have a new home with the New Orleans Saints – had to trade reps at the “Z” position. That was only two years ago, but it feels much longer given the situation the Cougars face in 2021.
Two of their four starters and top producers from last season, Jamire Calvin and Lucas Bacon, have left the program and a third, Renard Bell, recently had surgery for a torn ACL. Travell Harris should be one of the most explosive receivers, and skill players, in the Pac-12, but in an offense like the run-and-shoot, WSU will need to find at least three other reliable pass-catchers. It seems they may have two right off the bat, with Calvin Jackson Jr. and CJ Moore, although Jackson has struggled to stay healthy and Moore lacked consistency at times last spring, despite his big frame and athleticism. Given the uncertainty at QB, how the receivers develop will be pivotal to how the offense fares in 2021.
4. With Josh Watson’s departure, who grabs the vacant starting job at left guard?
WSU’s offensive line projects to be one of the best in the conference. If nothing else, it’s one of the most experienced with 60 returning starts between left tackle Liam Ryan (30 starts), left guard Jarrett Kingston (four), center Brian Greene (four) and right tackle Abraham Lucas (30). But the Cougars still need to fill one void, at right guard, in the wake of Josh Watson’s decision to leave football for firefighting. Spring camp was helpful in that regard. Multiple players had numerous opportunities to work with the first-team offense and benefit from the mentorship of veterans like Ryan and Lucas.
Still, the Cougars are far from settled when it comes to picking a starter.
“I think Cade (Beresford) did a really nice job through spring,” Rolovich said. “Konner (Gomness) has shown he can do a bunch of stuff for us. Rodrick (Tialavea) is going to be someone we want to see grow in his second year. There’s some O-line depth, that’s going to be kind of one of the focuses for fall camp.”
5. Which of the transfer defensive backs will step into a starting role?
It’s no guarantee that Kaleb Ford-Dement or Tyrone Hill Jr. will start for the Cougars this fall, but WSU’s coaching staff wouldn’t have been this aggressive in the transfer portal if they felt solid about the defensive secondary leaving spring camp. Michigan State transfer Chris Jackson technically makes it three transfer DBs, but he came in before camp started. Because Hill is more experienced at safety, a position of dire need for the Cougars, it’s probably safe to assume the Buffalo transfer and former All-MAC honoree has a better chance to inherit a starting role. Ford-Dement, an All-Conference USA corner at Old Dominion, is essentially competing for one spot, given Jaylen Watson all but has the other locked down. With Derrick Langford, Chau Smith-Wade and George Hicks III returning, Ford-Dement should face more competition at corner than Hill will at safety.
“We looked through a lot of guys to add some contributors into those spots and I think they’ve adjusted very well,” Rolovich said. “And I think we got it right with the people they are.”
It should be noted WSU is listing all corners, safeties and nickels simply as “defensive backs” on their new roster, so coaches won’t be opposed to trying out players at different positions as they see fit.
6. Which players will carve out rotation spots on the defensive line?
The Cougars return nearly everyone who played a snap at defensive tackle or “edge” last fall and the latter, especially, could be a strength of the defense if the right players made significant improvements during the offseason. Brennan Jackson has all the physical tools to transform into an all-conference-caliber edge rusher and Willie Taylor III has proven how disruptive he can be if healthy. Based on his experience, Ron Stone Jr. should also have an upper hand, but the older players can also expect push from a younger group of edge rushers that includes Gabriel Lopez, Justin Lohrenz, Marquise Freeman and walk-on Quinn Roff.
There doesn’t appear to be as much depth or talent on the interior of the defensive line, but Dallas Hobbs returns to the mix after suffering a long-term injury in the seasons finale at Utah and both Ahmir Crowder and Amir Mujahid showed signs of progress during spring camp.
7. Who replaces Blake Mazza at kicker? What about Oscar Draguicevich III at punter?
Earlier in the week, Andrew Boyle created some social media buzz after blasting a 72-yard field goal through the uprights at Martin Stadium. Boyle has the range to kick in the Pac-12 – OK at 72 yards, the NFL too – but can he hit enough 38-yarders in preseason camp to nail down WSU’s starting place-kicker job? Although none can mirror a real game, the Cougars will put their kickers through plenty of “pressure situations” in camp to determine which is best suited to play this fall.
Boyle, Lucas Dunker Jr. and Dean Janikowski are the main candidates to replace WSU’s three-year starter, Mazza.
At punter, Australia native Nick Haberer seems to have the best power but he’s still fairly new to the American game and will benefit from four more weeks of live practice.
8. After playing a big role in 2020, how will true freshmen factor in this fall?
Last season, a handful of true freshmen made contributions during WSU’s four-game season. Some of them were larger – de Laura starting all four games behind center – and others, like Joey Hobert spelling Harris on kickoff returns, remained on the smaller side.
Between opt-outs, COVID-19 absences and injuries, the Cougars had to call on true freshmen more than they would most years, and a bigger, more veteran roster means it probably won’t be the case quite as much this fall. But it’s still unlikely WSU makes it through a full season without turning to a freshman at some point.
“I want to see what they can do. … Who’s going to be able to help us?” Rolovich said. “I think with, I don’t want to call it an inflated roster, but you possibly could have a higher roster number than many other years. … I think who’s going to really kind of contribute on special teams and I think we’ve got some good body types that came in, especially in the linebacker/edge/D-tackle position I think can help us.”
9. What will Travell Harris’ evolution in the offense look like?
For the third time in his career, Harris was recently named to the watch list for the Paul Hornung Award, which is given to the most versatile player in college football. Can the redshirt senior actually have a more expansive role for the Cougars in 2021? It’s unclear exactly what Rolovich’s plans for Harris are after he emerged as a focal point of the run-and-shoot offense in 2020, catching 29 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for two more scores.
How about Harris’ role as a kick/punt returner? If the Tampa, Florida, native is WSU’s full-time returner, he may have chances to record receiving, rushing and return TDs in 2021, but knowing he’d be heavily involved in the offense, the Cougars chose to keep his special teams usage down in 2020, replacing Harris with Hobert in punt/kick return situations. With a full 12-game schedule in mind, will there be even more of an emphasis to keep Harris’ legs fresh by limiting his special teams opportunities?
10. Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh will be a formidable one-two punch in the backfield. How will WSU divvy up the RB reps?
On separate teams, Borghi and McIntosh may both have a chance to lead the conference in rushing yards. But both play for the Cougars, there’s only one ball and running back carries are still relatively scarce in Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense. If Borghi becomes the All-American back many expect he could be this fall, it may be tempting for the Cougars ride their senior until circumstances dictate they can’t. That doesn’t seem to be the way the coaches are leaning and fans can probably expect to see a pattern similar to the one used last season at Utah.
“I think they do a nice job of staying in their line and really focusing on their job,” Rolovich said. “I think it’s a wonderful luxury to have two players of that caliber back.”