Until they open the season, and truthfully not until they finish it, will we be able to determine how the Washington State Cougars suffered from the lack of a spring camp.
The Cougars had 15 dates on their spring calendar, but didn’t manage to sneak in a single practice before the novel coronavirus outbreak ruptured spring football and the sports world as a whole.
New head coach Nick Rolovich and WSU may recover if they’re somehow granted a few additional practices in June or July — something that would put the Cougars on level footing with the rest of their Pac-12 peers — but until then, we’ll recount five things the program lost out on by losing spring camp.
1. Scheme setbacks
For eight years, the Air Raid was an institution at WSU, producing NFL quarterbacks, record-setting wide receivers and All-American offensive linemen. While Mike Leach occasionally added new concepts and removed others, usually based on the personnel at his dispense, the beauty of the offense was its simplicity. The installation process itself didn’t take long and there were more than enough reps available during practice to assure the Cougars would execute once the reps counted.
The same is true of most offenses, but what changes when the reps are eliminated?
As it was, Rolovich would’ve been working with a abbreviated calendar to teach his run-and-shoot offense, with 15 practices in the spring and 25 in August. The elimination of spring ball leaves him and his coaches with less than a month — with the assumption that things return to normal — to fast-track the on-field instruction, which will complement the dozens of Zoom video meetings that have taken place since the pandemic hit.
Despite the similarities between the Air Raid and run-and-shoot, every offensive position will have to make a few dramatic adjustments. Quarterbacks, for example, will be designated runners in certain packages. Offensive linemen will play out of tighter splits than the ones to which they’re accustomed. Running backs will spend more time rushing and less time catching. Wide receivers will learn to alter their routes on the fly.
It’s plausible that the Cougars face an even steeper learning curve on defense. New coordinator Jake Dickert is installing a traditional four-man front and looking to restore a unit that allowed more than 30 points per game last season, failed to limit explosive plays and consistently struggled to tackle.
Technology platforms such as Zoom have allowed some learning to happen and certainly leave the Cougars in a better spot than they would’ve been otherwise. Still, WSU was one of three programs in the Pac-12, along with Washington and Colorado, that didn’t manage to squeeze in a single practice before camp was dissolved. Each of those three are under the direction of new head coaches, but none is changing as much as the Cougars. UW’s appointment of Jimmy Lake meant the Huskies don’t have to transform their defense, and new Colorado coach Karl Dorrell retained Buffs DC Tyson Summers, mitigating the learning curve in Boulder.
Meanwhile, with 11 new coaches, WSU is overhauling both sides of the ball. But will it have enough time to do it?
2. Cooper, Cruz lose out
For the third consecutive year, the Cougars will enter a new football season looking to identify a new starting quarterback. It worked out the past two times, largely because Gardner Minshew and Anthony Gordon, despite their inexperience in a crimson jersey, were seniors who had endless practice reps under their belt and a solid understanding of the system they were tasked with running.
Cammon Cooper and Gunner Cruz, the two scholarship quarterbacks on campus now (figuratively speaking), weren’t repped much in practice last year outside of Thursday Night Football sessions and the occasional team scrimmage, only collecting the leftover snaps that weren’t taken by Gordon and fellow seniors Trey Tinsley and Gage Gubrud.
Unless the Cougars scoop up a graduate transfer between now and August, Cooper, a redshirt freshman, and Cruz, a redshirt sophomore, have as much experience as anyone else on the roster. What they lack and where the absence of a spring camp will be most damaging, is experience in the run-and-shoot. Incoming freshman Jayden de Laura spent four years in the offense at Honolulu’s Saint Louis High, to the tune of four state championships.
The rapport Cooper and Cruz have built with teammates should give them an advantage, as well as the time they’ve spent in a college weight room. But without 15 spring practice, it feels as though they’ll be on a level playing field with de Laura once August swings around.
3. Defensive flip
For the first time since Mike Breske was the defensive coordinator at WSU, there won’t be a “Rush” linebacker on the Cougars’ depth chart. Rather than using a hybrid edge rusher/linebacker, Dickert prefers more of a traditional base look that uses four defensive linemen — two ends and two tackles — with two linebackers behind them.
One of the challenges Dickert and his assistants would’ve tackled in the spring was deciding where the team’s designated “Rush” backers belonged in a new scheme, namely redshirt junior Willie Taylor III (23 tackles in 2019) and Ron Stone Jr. (31 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks). Taylor, at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, and Stone, at 6-3, 228 pounds, seem to have the body frames to play as traditional defensive ends — or close to it — when you consider Dickert’s starting edge rushers at Wyoming checked in at 6-1, 236 pounds, and 6-5, 212 pounds.
Presuming they do make the switch to D-end, Taylor and Stone may need to beef up a bit to handle larger, more physical offensive linemen in the Pac-12 — something another month in the weight room could have helped with — but spring camp would’ve also helped them learn to play with a hand on the ground at all times. Even when they played in the trenches in pass-rushing situations, Taylor and Stone never had their paws on the turf.
It isn’t to say both won’t catch on, but now there’s less time to do so.
4. Wideout worries
Worries? What worries?
Based on productivity and experience alone, WSU’s wide receivers should be the least of the team’s concerns going into 2020. The Cougars graduated Dezmon Patmon, Easop Winston Jr. and Brandon Arconado, and also lost Rodrick Fisher — a quartet that was responsible for 240 receptions, 3,106 yards and 27 touchdowns last season — yet they still return four who totaled 154 catches, 1,796 yards and 16 touchdowns.
For that reason alone, the group should be interesting to follow, but we’ll also be tracking the receivers to see how they pick up the things they’ll be asked to do in the run-and-shoot offense. What makes the system so unique, and dynamic when done correctly, is the freedom the receivers have to alter their routes as they’re running them, based on the coverage the defense is showing. For that to be successful, there needs to be a connection between the quarterback and his receivers.
By now, we can assume the receivers have a general understanding of the routes they’ll be running, and the different adjustments they can make midpattern to throw off the defense. Still, the intrinsic connection between QB and WR is not built in a Zoom chat room but on a field through lots of trial and error. That would’ve been hard to nail down with 40 practices, let alone the 25 the Cougars are left with now.
5. No visitation allowed
By forfeiting spring practice, the Cougars also forfeited one of the most important periods of the recruiting calendar. The implications could be especially substantial for a new staff that would’ve been using April not only to develop the current players, but sell their program to the prospective ones.
The Cougars would have had a handful of visitors on their “Junior Day” and the Crimson and Gray game would have attracted dozens more. Last year, for example, WSU hosted five-star linebacker Sav’ell Smalls of Kennedy Catholic in conjunction with the spring game. Smalls signed with UW, but thought highly enough of his trip to WSU to place the Cougars in his “top six.”
Brandon Huffman of 247Sports.com recently said the Cougars would’ve had at least six in-state prospects on campus during the spring evaluation period. Those six and many more canceled their scheduled visits when the NCAA instituted a recruiting dead period, limiting programs to phone/social media communication with recruits.
We’ll wait until the early signing period in December, and the subsequent period in February, to determine how this influenced Rolovich’s first full recruiting class. The Cougars have two commitments — just one less than they had at the same point last season — so there’s a chance the damage will be minimal. Nonetheless, for a program that’s always been confident in its ability to hook a recruit once they get him on campus, conceding the spring evaluation window marked a missed opportunity.