PULLMAN — Washington State’s football team will debut a revamped version of the Air Raid offense — the “Coug Raid,” they’re calling it — in less than two weeks.
So, what should you expect from the Cougars’ new system?
Here’s what we liked after observing fall camp practices for three weeks:
The passing-game personnel
It wasn’t difficult to sense superstar potential among quarterback Cameron Ward and his top pass-catchers this preseason.
Ward’s prospects certainly seem good for his first WSU season following an impressive performance at fall camp. He produced efficiently and always seemed to work with confidence and composure while guiding WSU’s offense in full-team drills.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound sophomore showed off the exceptional skill set that had made him one of the most coveted transfer players nationally in this year’s recruiting cycle. Ward’s arm is powerful and precise. He’s mobile if necessary, and capable of completing accurate passes downfield while scrambling out of the pocket in either direction. His release is quick and his sidearm throws are effective in the short-field passing game.
Ward controlled the flow of the offense like a veteran QB this preseason. He appears to have avoided many of the growing pains that would normally be expected to come with an underclassman FCS transfer starting for a first-year coaching staff in the FBS.
That’s in part because Ward led the same version of the Air Raid offense over the past two seasons at Incarnate Word under coach Eric Morris — now the Cougars’ offensive coordinator. Morris joined WSU’s staff in December, about a month before Ward committed to the Cougars, and began to install his Air Raid during spring camp.
It obviously helps that Ward also has a talented group of receivers surrounding him.
His favorite targets — slotbacks Renard Bell and Lincoln Victor, and outside receivers De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie — have distinguished themselves as four of the most reliable playmakers on the team.
The slots dazzled in open space on short and intermediate routes throughout camp. The outside receivers caught long passes in stride and capitalized on their advantage against WSU’s defensive backs on jump balls deep down the field.
Who will be Ward’s first look in 2022? It’ll be an interesting storyline to keep tabs on as the season progresses. Each of the top four options had plenty of bright moments during camp, but Stribling gets our vote for now. The 6-3 sophomore, the Pac-12’s leading rookie receiver last year, seems to be a Power Five star in the making. He was probably the most challenging coverage assignment for WSU’s secondary in passing drills this month. From what we could tell, Stribling produced more highlight-reel catches in camp than all of his fellow receivers — though the other three weren’t far behind. Victor is electric with the ball in his hands. Bell is well-tested at this level and has amassed nearly 1,700 receiving yards and 16 TDs in his Cougar career. Ollie has developed into a physical, sure-handed target.
WSU’s receiving room is arguably one of the team’s top two position groups, along with edge rushers — considering factors such as depth, consistency and overall effectiveness in team drills this month. Three backup receivers have emerged as dependable targets to rotate behind the four starters.
It’s been a convincing month for the Cougars’ starting QB and standout receivers. But we’re less convinced about WSU’s new-look offensive line. If Ward can stay upright behind the unproven group of big men, the Cougars’ passing game should make for must-see TV.
Expect to see a wide range of formations and a steady rushing attack when this revamped Air Raid system makes its WSU debut on Sept. 3 at Gesa Field against Idaho.
WSU’s base set on offense includes four receivers — two slots and two outside receivers on either side — and one running back. Receivers motion often and line up in various spots. Two slots and one outside receiver will occasionally share one side of the field. Outside receivers sometimes shift inside and play the slot.
It isn’t unusual for the Cougars to send out five receivers and remove their tailback.
A few plays later, they could trot out two tight ends and stack the line of scrimmage in a “bunch” configuration. Tight ends haven’t been used at WSU in over a decade, but the position is back in the mix with Morris’ Air Raid.
Head coach Jake Dickert calls it a “multiple” offense — the system is flexible, able to adapt based on an opponent’s defensive tendencies.
If they spot cracks in the secondary, the Cougars might take the approach of former coach/Air Raid guru Mike Leach and dial up 60 passing plays in a game. But it’s also possible that Ward throws fewer than 40 passes in one contest as WSU feeds its tailbacks to exploit a weakness in a foe’s defensive front. (Of note: Running backs are targeted frequently as check-down options in the pass game.) Junior Nakia Watson, the third-stringer last year, will shoulder the bulk of the carries as the “clear-cut No. 1” running back, Dickert said. Jaylen Jenkins had a breakout camp and turned heads with his speed. The true freshman has cemented himself as the Cougars’ “1B” on the depth chart at RB, according to Dickert.
The Cougars estimate their pass/run balance this season will be comparable to UIW’s under Morris: around 60/40, according to several players and coaches. During the Leach era (2012-19), WSU opted to pass on over 70% of its snaps.
WSU’s new Air Raid shares route concepts and passing strategies with Leach’s brand — prominently featured in both offenses are shallow and midrange passes, distributed quickly to receivers in space. But the Cougars’ contemporary system will include a healthy dose of run-pass options and play-action bootlegs. WSU will send out a power-running unit for certain short-yardage scenarios, too.
The variety in WSU’s play-calling made the offense that much more unpredictable and entertaining to watch at fall camp. The Cougars’ defenders are grateful to be training against a versatile offense.
“It’s just very dynamic,” linebacker Hudson Cedarland said Saturday of the Air Raid. “(Defensive coordinator Brian Ward), he’ll always say in the film room that he loves going against those guys because they’re so dynamic and they give us so many different looks. It’s super nice as a defense to get all those looks.”
The Cougars will operate out of a hurry-up offense on a somewhat regular basis this year. Cameron Ward and his receivers did some of their best work this preseason in up-tempo drives. Ward marched the offense to the line quickly after each snap and doled out pinpoint passes to the sidelines.
“We’re going to be able to play at any speed,” Dickert said. “We’re going to use (hurry-up offense), but at the same time, when we get leads in the fourth quarter, we can slow it down and pound the football. That’s why this offense is here.”