PULLMAN — They overhauled their staff and ditched their run-and-shoot offense. Consequently, the Washington State Cougars probably expected some of their players to hit college football’s free-agency market, known as the NCAA’s transfer portal.

Still, when Jayden de Laura announced Jan. 7 that he’d be finishing his college career elsewhere, the initial reaction was surprise.

It was an appropriate response from a fan base that had watched the dynamic young quarterback rally WSU to bowl eligibility after the team’s midseason coaching shake-up.

The Cougars faithful had seen him mature over two years, steadily developing his leadership traits and blossoming into a Pac-12 rising star after seizing WSU’s starting job as a freshman ahead of the 2020 season.

De Laura drew praise last season for deftly navigating the Cougars offense through a tumultuous season, during which three offensive-minded WSU coaches — including coach Nick Rolovich — were fired for failing to comply with a state COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Jake Dickert took over for Rolovich in mid-October, and on multiple occasions throughout the back half of the season called de Laura the team’s “catalyst.”

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After he was promoted to permanent coach Nov. 27 — partially because of his QB’s consistency — Dickert repeatedly made his pitch to de Laura, promising supporters that the Cougars’ new Air Raid offense would center on the fiery signal caller from Hawaii who had spearheaded WSU’s first Apple Cup win in nine years.

Naturally, it came as a bit of a shock when those plans fell through.

De Laura’s departure felt sudden because it signaled a fresh start for WSU, a shift in identity for a Cougars offense that had been deeply influenced by his energetic, sometimes improvisational style of play.

His diligence this season made him a folk hero among Cougars, many of whom predicted he’d be the next standout in WSU’s recent string of quarterbacking greats. Instead, de Laura leaves behind a complicated legacy marked by unfulfilled potential.

“We’ve entered a new world of college football, and the portal has really changed the whole landscape,” Dickert said Jan. 11. “Everyone has their own individual situations that we’re constantly discussing. There has to be a plan, and just knowing what’s next for our program.”

Perhaps de Laura’s exit was inevitable. After all, the Cougars seemed to be bracing for it.

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As de Laura shopped for suitors last month, WSU already had a successor in mind.

On Jan. 10, the same day de Laura announced his commitment to Arizona, the Cougars signed an intriguing QB recruit in Cameron Ward.

The Incarnate Word transfer sparkled at the FCS level under coach Eric Morris, who was hired last month to install a revamped version of the Air Raid and coordinate the offense at WSU, which extended an offer to Ward in late December.

Ward announced the offer within an hour of the final whistle of WSU’s 24-21 loss to Central Michigan at the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31. De Laura started in the finale but had a rough first half behind a makeshift offensive line and didn’t play after halftime, apparently due to a lower-body injury.

The program’s incoming OC wanted to bring along his own quarterback, and that was no doubt a key reason behind de Laura’s choice to transfer.

Generally speaking, the school’s coaching change was the deciding factor in de Laura’s departure. The Cougars didn’t retain any offensive assistants from their 2021 staff. These days, losing players to the portal is a byproduct of rebuilding a college program.

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De Laura is a longtime student of the run-and-shoot offense, dating to his prep days in Honolulu. He’d been recruited by Mike Leach and mentored by Rolovich, with whom he formed a rapport in Pullman.

De Laura was an outspoken supporter of his former coach, and clearly disgruntled when Rolovich was fired. It’d be fair to assume de Laura began plotting a career move long before he announced it.

In the end he made a business decision, and Arizona presumably had the best offer.

The Cougars, meanwhile, knew they could expedite their rebuild with Ward, considering his familiarity with the offense. So an enticing deal was put together for the rocket-armed sophomore, who picked WSU over Ole Miss after agreeing to a big-time NIL offer.

“He’s got a lot of upside in our program,” Dickert said of Ward. “Those relationships (with teammates), he really specializes in. Then you turn the tape on, and the throws he makes — regardless of level — are special.”

On one hand, it’s hard to ignore the what-ifs surrounding de Laura’s career in crimson and gray.

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He’s the only true freshman to start a season opener at quarterback in Cougars history, and onlookers could easily spot glimpses of his high ceiling during his debut season.

But de Laura hit a setback when he missed spring camp last year while serving a suspension for an offseason DUI charge, of which he was later found not guilty. Rolovich started graduate transfer Jarrett Guarantano in Week 1. The coach cited decision-making and maturity issues as his rationale for benching de Laura, who quickly won back his coach’s trust when he entered in relief of Guarantano during WSU’s season opener against Utah State.

“He didn’t throw his helmet down and go jump in the transfer portal,” Rolovich said in early September. “He put his head down, went to work and was here for his teammates.”

From there, de Laura only improved as the year progressed. The Cougars suffered at the QB position when a leg injury sidelined de Laura for a game and a half early. But he bounced back, cementing himself as WSU’s No. 1 option and topping the Pac-12 in passing touchdowns (23) and yards (2,742) in the regular season. He earned the conference’s offensive freshman of the year award.

More important, he became a stabilizing presence for a fractured team and helped the Cougars change their narrative, turning what could have been a disaster into an uplifting season.

Is that how he’ll be remembered in Cougar Nation, as the spirited quarterback who planted Ol’ Crimson at Husky Stadium? Or will his abrupt exit overshadow his accomplishments?

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Maybe no one will wonder about what could have been.

That is, if Ward is as good as his résumé suggests.

A four-star recruit, Ward comes to Pullman as a top-five transfer QB in the country.

The Spokesman-Review conducted a Twitter poll this month, asking voters to choose between Ward and de Laura. More than 800 Cougars fans participated, and 54% selected Ward.

“I mean it: This is starting new,” Dickert said. “We’re turning the page and moving forward. We’re excited to coach the guys that want to be here and be a part of it.”

Arizona will host WSU on Nov. 19.

Checking in on WSU’s roster

A total of 28 players from WSU’s 2021 roster have departed the school since the start of the season. Four declared for the NFL draft. Thirteen transferred, but only four played meaningful reps last year — de Laura, center Brian Greene, right guard Cade Beresford and edge Willie Taylor III. The rest have either completed their eligibility or graduated and decided to move on with eligibility remaining.

The Cougars are losing seven starters on offense and five on defense.

They replaced their QB already and feel confident in their receiving corps, but they must bulk up on the offensive line and add a running back or two.

Mainstay linebackers Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers finished their careers. WSU inked a solid transfer LB in former Nevada standout Daiyan Henley and is expected to promote veteran middle LB Travion Brown. The Cougars return plenty of experience at defensive line and cornerback, but the safety positions will feature unfamiliar faces in 2022.