Renard Bell and Justus Rogers are senior leaders on Washington State’s football team whose voices and actions should carry a long way in the locker room this fall.
Maybe next fall, too.
Nearly two months after they were scheduled to open preseason camp, the Cougars held their first practice under new coach Nick Rolovich Friday in Pullman. For the next four weeks, the program will focus on how it can best prepare for the seven-game, conference-only schedule released by the Pac-12 last Saturday.
There’s lots to worry about now, but it was hard not to peer into the future when Bell and Rogers sat down for their virtual post-practice interviews Friday evening.
The NCAA’s recent ruling on eligibility means fourth- or fifth-year seniors can play a truncated 2020 football season without using a year of eligibility and return to play a full schedule in 2021. While some seniors have immediate NFL aspirations, others might benefit from putting 12-12 more games on tape. If their school elects to keep them on scholarship, they could also pursue a postgraduate degree they may not have had a chance to otherwise.
Bell, an inside receiver, and Rogers, a middle linebacker, are impact players who’ve each contributed in their own right to WSU’s four-year bowl streak, although it’s unlikely would show up on a mock NFL Draft board entering the 2020 season.
Both seemed to be encourage by the NCAA legislation allowing them to come back next season, and indicated they’ll plan do so if everything goes according to schedule.
“I’m excited, yeah, that’s the plan,” Rogers said. “That’s the plan. I already got things underway academics wise to be able to continue my classes after I graduate this December. It’s exciting.”
Rogers, a redshirt senior this season, has already made 39 appearances for the Cougars and only trails linebacker Jahad Woods and safety Skyler Thomas for career tackles, with 126. He’s not sure where the rest of his fellow seniors stand on a potential 2021 return, but finds it hard to believe they’ll pass up on the opportunity.
“I assume everybody that can will,” Rogers added. “I don’t have too much knowledge, but I just assume everybody (will), because why pass that up, you know?”
Like Rogers, Bell sees the perks of spending a sixth season in Pullman. It’s hard to anticipate how the next three months will play out, but the Los Angeles native who’s already caught 114 passes for 1,319 yards and 14 touchdowns in three seasons could have 19 or 20 more games to pad his stats, attract NFL eyeballs and make memories with his teammates.
“Definitely, if the cards are for me to come back, I’m coming back,” Bell said. “I want to be back with my teammates for a full season, but if that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. But I’m planning on coming back, I want to come back. So, whatever happens happens.”
With 15 seniors listed on WSU’s new roster, more than a dozen of the team’s veterans could take advantage of the chance to log one more season in a crimson and gray uniform.
Given the bizarre circumstances of the 2020 season, WSU may have to rely on a few true freshman to fill spots this fall. In fact, it’s probably more a matter of “when,” not “if.”
It’s just one practice, but Rolovich already has a good sense of who among his young players would be able to fill a role if needed. When the coach was asked to list the true freshmen who stood out Friday, he offered a single name.
“Joey Hobert,” Rolovich said, referring to the 5-foot-11, 183-pound wide receiver and three-star signee from San Juan Hills High in Southern California.
In a follow-up, the coach was asked to elaborate.
“There wasn’t a real adjustment period for him,” Rolovich said. “I thought he practices like he belongs, the stage isn’t too big for him. I think he’s got a good grasp for the play calls, the playbook, and he acts older than a true freshman.”
Hobert’s production as a high school senior would also imply he’s equipped to play immediately at the next level. The receiver, defensive back and returns specialist had 1,216 receiving yards and 18 touchdown catches last fall, but he also rushed for a touchdown, scored on a fumble recovery, returned two interceptions for touchdowns and had both punt and kick return touchdowns.
Bell, who’s played with his share of skilled WSU slots, also had rave reviews for Hobert.
“Oh yeah, Joey’s going to be something special. Definitely,” Bell said. “Joey’s for sure going to be something special. You can see him from the day he came in. He was ready to work off the rip.”
Not unlike many of the other slots that were recruited to play in Mike Leach’s Air Raid — as Hobert was, before the coach fled to Mississippi State — the freshman receiver possesses strong, steady hands, Bell noted.
“Joey, he doesn’t wear gloves either,” Bell said. “So his hands are real nice, too, you should see them. But Joey’s going to be real nice. I can’t wait to see him develop, once he starts really getting this offense down. Like correcting just mental errors, little things. Once he gets all the little things down, he’s for sure going to be something special.”
COVID-19 opt outs
No different than many of their peers around the Pac-12 and country, the Cougars will face roster attrition due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Rolovich confirmed more than one player on the team will be opting out of the season, citing COVID-19, though the coach was unsure at the time of Friday’s interview if he was able to disclose names.
“I don’t know if I can say that, can I say that?” Rolovich said. “I don’t know, I better figure out if I can say that or not. Let me ask that question first.”