Finally, a new era of football begins for Washington State.
Two months later than originally planned — and with a schedule nearly half the size — because of the coronavirus, new coach Nick Rolovich and his run-and-shoot offense will play a game, at Oregon State on Saturday night.
“They’re very excited to play,” Rolovich said of his players. “They really like each other and the anticipation of this game. They understand that Oregon State is going to be a challenge.
Cougar fans certainly have great anticipation, too, because there is so much new with this team: coach, quarterback, coordinators and schemes, just to start.
Perhaps the biggest spotlight will be on WSU freshman quarterback Jayden de Laura. Last year at this time, he was leading Saint Louis High School of Honolulu to a state title. Now, he will be the first true freshman to start a game at quarterback in WSU history.
That de Laura played in a run-and-shoot offense in high school helped give him an advantage over his two top competitors at the position — redshirt sophomore Cammon Cooper and redshirt freshman Gunner Cruz.
“It allowed him to get on a competitive level very quickly, especially without having spring (practices),” Rolovich said.
Rolovich said he believes de Laura is “going to give us the best chance to move the ball Saturday. That doesn’t mean the other two didn’t do some good things, and we’ve got to be able to count on them also.”
“(de Laura) has got good arm strength, good understanding, good timing, good manipulation of the defenders, gets the ball out quick, has some accuracy and has the ability to make plays off-script. And his competitive nature. I think he came here for a reason. But he’s got to perform well.”
Rolovich said there is always the possibility he could play more than one quarterback, but he is not going into the game planning to.
WSU’s new signal caller will be facing a veteran Oregon State defense, with nine players back on that unit who were either part-time or full-time starters, led by outside linebacker Hamilcar Rashed Jr., a second-team All-American who led the nation last year with a school-record 22.5 tackles for loss.
“He was a disruptive force in the conference last season,” said Rolovich, whose Hawaii team beat Oregon State 31-28 last season. “He is a talented player on that defense, but they play well as a whole. There are a lot of returners on that defense, and that’s going to allow him to be a better version of himself.”
Washington State tackle Abraham Lucas didn’t remember Rashed Jr.’s last name, but he is fully aware of who he is and the challenge the Beaver defense presents.
“I know he is No. 9,” Lucas said. “He didn’t have a chance to do much last year against us because he had a broken hand, so I am excited to compete against him this year when he is at full force. He’s going to be a good challenge for us, especially in the first game, but you wouldn’t have it any other way. You don’t want it to be easy; nothing is fun unless it’s difficult and you can succeed at it. It’s going to be a battle between us.”
The WSU defense knows Oregon State will give star running back Jermar Jefferson plenty of chances to see if the Cougars, who have changed from a 3-4 defense to a 4-2-5 defense, have improved on stopping the run after ranking last in rushing defense in 2019.
The Beavers also have a new starter at quarterback, Tristan Gebbia, the one-time prized recruit who transferred to Oregon State from Nebraska. He started last season for the Beavers in a 24-10 loss to Oregon when Jake Luton was hurt.
Rolovich said it’s important the “Cougars don’t disrespect the guys who have played here before by taking a play off or not giving 100 percent.” Then, the coach added, “Ball security would be good, too.”
That no fans will be in stands is not a big concern to Lucas.
“No fans is like practice,” Lucas said. “We’re not going to practice, but it’s like a practice.”
Well, kind of. But the excitement level Saturday sure won’t be the same.
“I don’t want to get too overexcited and get too super high and be out there all over the place and going too crazy, but I can’t let myself not get excited, because if I am not excited, why would I even be out there?” Lucas said.
Said Rolovich: “Our guys understand the challenge and the opportunity. … They’ve gone through so much just to get to a game week, and they’re genuinely excited.
“I can’t guarantee you any wins, but I guarantee you we will fight and that gives us a chance.”