PULLMAN — Last week, we listed five predictions for the Washington State football team in 2019. Now, here are five pressing questions facing the Cougars this fall, starting with the most obvious one — another quarterback conundrum.
1. Can WSU get enough production from a first-year starter at the QB position?
It isn’t as easy as Gardner Minshew made it look. While Minshew was proof that a graduate-transfer quarterback can succeed, it’s important to understand he isn’t the rule, but an exception.
Minshew’s prior knowledge of the Air Raid, and willingness to put in extra work with WSU’s receivers, mitigated the learning curve somebody else in his position may have experienced.
Two of the QBs in the running to replace Minshew are well-versed in the Air Raid, but lack game experience. Gage Gubrud has what Anthony Gordon and Trey Tinsley don’t — live snaps on the big stage — but he’ll need every rep he can take during fall camp to nail down coach Mike Leach’s passing concepts and build chemistry with his receivers and offensive line.
The Cougars have gotten at least 4,300 yards and 30 touchdowns from the QB position each of the past six seasons, including 4,700 yards or more during four of those. Minshew had success because he was able to play within the system, and avoid overplaying. Regardless of who it is, his heir apparent will probably have to follow a similar model.
2. How durable can Max Borghi stay over 12 games?
The Cougars worked in two players behind Max Borghi in the spring — former linebacker Cole Dubots and fullback Clay Markoff — and should have another, incoming freshman Jamir Thomas, when they reconvene for fall workouts. But it’s no secret that Borghi will be the lead back, something the Cougars haven’t had much of over the past decade, usually preferring to divvy up the reps between two or three players who are equally talented.
The good news is Borghi has the highest ceiling of any running back Leach has brought to Pullman, and he showed that in flashes as a true freshman, scoring 12 touchdowns while averaging a team-high 5.1 yards per carry. Borghi’s touches will obviously increase in 2019 — he carried the ball 72 times last season and should double that this season — and so will the volume of hits he takes every game.
Borghi is able to withstand the hits he takes, and often initiates his own contact, but his fatigue and his health will be pivotal. If either is compromised, it could put the Cougars in an offensive bind.
3. The O-line returns four starters, but how crucial is the loss of Andre Dillard?
Liam Ryan, Josh Watson, Fred Mauigoa, Robert Valencia and Abraham Lucas could form one of the top offensive lines in the conference this fall. Four of those five are returning starters and Valencia isn’t far behind any of them.
But the success of the offensive line could hinge on how successful Ryan can be at left tackle, the position vacated by All-American and 22nd overall NFL draft pick Andre Dillard, who sealed off Minshew’s blind side last season, usually fending off the opponent’s best edge rusher; the quarterback was sacked just 13 times on 662 pass attempts. Ryan made the switch from guard to tackle this spring, by most accounts making it as successfully as anyone could’ve expected.
But regardless of who’s throwing the passes for the Cougars this fall, Ryan will be in charge of blocking the blind side. Minshew’s ability to extend plays was a boon for WSU last season, but equally important was the ample time he had in the pocket.
4. Who’ll start at inside linebacker next to Jahad Woods?
For the first time in five years, fourth-generation Cougar Peyton Pelluer won’t fill one of WSU’s two inside linebacker positions. Jahad Woods, coming off a season where he was named All-Pac-12 honorable mention, should give the position its punch and assume many of the leadership responsibilities left behind by Pelluer.
But it’s unclear who’ll fill the linebacker spot opposite Woods, and the competition for the starting “Mike” job should be one of the most hotly contested position battles during fall camp. Redshirt juniors Dillon Sherman and Justus Rogers have made it difficult to choose. Sherman and Rogers are level in game experience, though Sherman turned in 30 tackles last season while Rogers had just nine.
Sherman’s probably a stronger tackler, but Rogers is quicker and more adept in coverage. Both will get on the field plenty, but which one has the better August should determine who plays more in September.
5. Will Jalen Thompson finally emerge as an All-American-caliber safety?
After Thompson nabbed Freshman All-American honors three years ago, some suspected a climb to more prestigious All-American teams would come sooner. While he’s been an important cog in WSU’s ever-improving defensive secondary, Thompson still hasn’t made the leap from All-Pac-12 to All-American — and it’s a jump he could easily make in 2019 as a senior. The Downey, Calif., native has proven to be one of WSU’s top open-field tacklers, as evidenced by his 191 career takedowns, and he batted down eight passes and intercepted two as a junior and had four interceptions as a sophomore.