New coach, new quarterback, new schemes, new coordinators and no spring practices to test the new parts.
It’s no wonder then that Washington State, which opens its football season Saturday at Oregon State, was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 North Division.
“That’s somewhat motivating, but it’s not something that I need to spend time thinking about debating,” said coach Nick Rolovich, who guided Hawaii to a resurgence and was hired to replace Mike Leach, who left for Mississippi State after eight seasons at WSU. “I see how the coaching change, schematic changes on all sides of the ball, losing some transfer-portal guys who were contributors and lack of prep time for a new staff, how all those things come into play (into predictions).”
Though the Cougars might be a big unknown to most of college football, Rolovich said the months of not being allowed on the field because of COVID-19 “really gave us time to focus on the personal qualities of each individual team member.”
His message to his team is that it has a great opportunity. Rolovich believes this shortened and strange season is a positive for an unknown team like his.
“I think the team that can get into the rhythm and can get on a roll — I mean, you win a couple, you get on a roll, and boom, you’re sitting in first place,” Rolovich said. “There are going to be weather issues for teams coming up here, there’s going to be travel issues, and it probably helps with how I do things — not necessarily everything has to be this way, and things don’t necessarily upset me. We can go with the flow of change pretty easily.”
That said, for the Cougars to surprise the pundits, they will need positive answers to several questions.
What we know is that WSU has perhaps the conference’s best offensive player in running back Max Borghi, a top-tier punter and kicker, several returning talented receivers and a veteran offensive line. After that?
“Quarterback is a question mark,” Rolovich said. “Defensively, probably question marks throughout. It’s not going to be just one position group dominating because I am not sure there is a position group on the defense that is in that position right now. Lots of question marks, but I feel there are going to be a lot of contributors on defense.”
The most notable change will be at quarterback, where a three-way battle ensued to replace Anthony Gordon, who threw for a Pac-12-record 5,596 yards and 48 touchdowns as a senior, leading WSU to a 6-7 record that included a loss in the Cheez-It Bowl.
Freshman Jayden de Laura emerged as the starter, beating out redshirt sophomore Cammon Cooper and redshirt freshman Gunner Cruz. He will be the first true freshman to start a season opener at quarterback for the Cougars.
The 6-foot, 195-pound QB had the advantage of playing in the run-and-shoot offense while at Saint Louis High in Honolulu, where he led his team to state titles the past two seasons. Last year he threw for 3,421 yards and 29 touchdowns and rushed for 345 yards and eight touchdowns while being named state player of the year.
Rolovich said de Laura impressed coaches and teammates this past month, but noted that as a freshman, he is bound to make some mistakes.
“He comes in with a good feel of the offense as far as how you play as a quarterback, how you use your feet, how you use your eyes and body language to manipulate people,” said Rolovich, who will share play-calling duties with offensive coordinator Brian Smith. “I think he’s got a real live arm for a true freshman that is able to succeed at this level, and I think it hasn’t been too big for him so far.
“We have to continue to coach him through pressure situations and making good decisions, but he came with a purpose when he came off the plane and he earned the respect of all the players because of the way he has practiced.”
Having Borghi to hand off to and throw to should make the transition easier for de Laura. Borghi got limited opportunities to run the ball in Leach’s Air Raid offense but should get a lot more chances to carry the ball in the run-and-shoot based on how Rolovich’s teams played at Hawaii.
“He’s very talented, and I think he’s enjoying developing into more of a running back instead of just a pass-catcher out of the backfield,” said Rolovich of Borghi, a junior who rushed for 817 yards last season (6.4 yards per carry) and caught 86 passes for 597 yards. “And I think the offensive line has enjoyed developing some of the run schemes.”
That line, which some believe is the strength of the team, will be led by tackles Abe Lucas and Liam Ryan and guard Josh Watson, who have combined to start 77 games at WSU.
The defense, under new coordinator Jake Dickert, will play a 4-2-5 scheme instead of the 3-4 defense that the unit played last year. That linebacker Jahad Woods, in his fifth year in the program, is back to lead the defense should help make the transition easier. His 141 tackles last season was fourth-most in the nation.
WSU athletic director Pat Chun said last month on radio that he thought the defense might be ahead of the offense going into Week 1.
That’s a reflection of the defense and the defensive staff, said Rolovich, whose team was one of three in the Pac-12 not to get in any spring practices, along with Washington and Colorado. “I don’t remember when (Chun) said that, but that’s fine. As long as we win football games, I don’t care.”
Rolovich said he has been impressed with how his players have handled all the things that come with playing during a pandemic, including the COVID-19 testing every morning. Rolovich said he doubts he would have handled it that well when he was in college.
But what that means on the field is a question. Just like most things about this team this year.
“There is more opportunity right now for an unknown team than at any other time in recent history,” Rolovich said. “We have a chance to jump on people, and we’ve just got to be ready. I don’t know if I would give you a goal (for number of wins). But if we are able to play with constant effort and play the game of football with the right qualities, as far as lack of selfishness and really doing it for a greater good, I think that will be a successful season, because that will also lead us to more wins.”