What once marked the most important day on college football’s recruiting calendar, Wednesday came without any breaking developments or surprises for Nick Rolovich and Washington State.
The Cougars supplemented the 19 high-school and junior-college players who signed in December with three FBS transfers and one more high-school product Wednesday, bringing their 2021 recruiting class to 23 total players.
Along with Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, Texas Christian linebacker Ben Wilson and Michigan State cornerback Chris Jackson, who’ve all been on campus since the start of the new semester, WSU signed wide receiver Tsion Nunnally, a Santa Rosa, California, native who committed to the Cougars last July.
Rolovich met virtually with reporters for the first time since the season-ending defeat at Utah to discuss the 2021 signing class and other relevant topics surrounding WSU’s football program. We expand on five things the coach said during Wednesday’s news conference.
‘Felt like home off the rip’
Within the first hour of submitting his name into the transfer portal, somewhere between 20 to 30 programs — WSU being one of those — reached out to Guarantano, the Tennessee graduate transfer told Yogi Roth and Guy Haberman of the Pac-12 Networks on Wednesday.
“Me and my family just wanted to take a deep breath and kind of just handle the process, go slow into this thing,” Guarantano said. “But the process kind of didn’t let us.”
Even then, the quarterback identified the Cougars as a potential fit almost immediately and without visiting the Pullman campus, Guarantano felt at ease following phone conversations with Rolovich, quarterbacks coach Craig Stutzmann and offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Brian Smith.
“It kind of felt like home off the rip,” he said. “It was probably a couple days later, honestly, that I knew Washington State was going to be my home but I wanted to prolong it a little bit, just make sure I was making the right decision.”
The Cougars did their due diligence in the transfer portal, keeping their eyes open throughout the month of January for experienced players who could add depth or, in Guarantano’s case, push for immediate playing time at a key position. Rolovich is close with Tyson Helton, who was one of Guarantano’s former OCs at Tennessee, and the Cougars were able to gather more information on the quarterback from a former Hawaii graduate assistant who now works with the Volunteers.
“Really, I thought what Jarrett was looking for and the opportunity here really matched,” Rolovich said. “I think there was a good connection between him and Stutz on the phone. Really, it was the personal conversation between myself, Stutz and Jarrett that we just felt like it was a good match.”
Although the Cougars bring back returning starter Jayden de Laura, the top storyline during spring camp, and possibly through the first few weeks of fall camp too, will undoubtedly be the quarterback battle between Guarantano, de Laura and redshirt sophomore Cammon Cooper.
“We were very transparent with the quarterbacks before it got to completion (with Guarantano), not necessarily when he signed but him making his decision,” Rolovich said. “Stutz had that conversation with those guys individually.”
One more year
Within the last two months, the Cougars were able to add four more players to their 2021 class, but the most important commitments they secured came from players already in the program.
When the season ended, right tackle Abraham Lucas and running back Max Borghi both mulled returning to school for one more season versus entering their names in the NFL draft.
Lucas wasn’t widely regarded as a top-tier offensive tackle in the draft this year, but most experts projected he’d still have a chance to be selected in rounds four through seven. Borghi, whose back injury prevented him from climbing up draft boards last season, was more of a fringe prospect but perhaps could’ve boosted his stock at an event like the scouting combine.
Instead, both elected to return to WSU this fall, giving the Cougars a returning starter at 10 of 11 positions on offense — all but right guard. Speaking with reporters for the first time since both Lucas and Borghi made their respective decisions, Rolovich said he made a point to not interfere in either player’s process and checked in only a few times.
On Lucas: “Abe was, I felt, very independent and thoughtful in his decision. He knew we were here if he wanted to talk about it. I think he’s got a support system. I was really impressed with his maturity. If he wanted my opinion, I’d give it to him, but it didn’t come to that. … He was good, he was really about his business. He’s on a mission, I think he has unfinished business here.”
On Borghi: “Max, very similar really. There weren’t a whole lot of conversations. I’m not into trying to tell the kid what he’s got to do. … There’s no doubt Max has ability and definitely a benefit to get him back also.”
It wasn’t necessarily a grand surprise that Nunnally signed his letter of intent with the Cougars on Wednesday, but it definitely offered a sigh of relief to those who track WSU’s recruiting moves.
The Northern California native had been committed to the Cougars since July 31, but curiously didn’t sign his letter of intent in December. According to Cougfan.com, academic hurdles came up for the receiver and Nunnally’s coach at Cardinal Newman told the website the player’s loyalty to WSU never wavered.
Still, a handful of other schools reached out to Nunnally in the meantime, according to Cougfan, and while his offer list consisted of just one other Pac-12 school, Washington, and four mid-majors, there’s always the chance a player reconsiders when bigger programs start to show interest, as they often do in January and February while trying to fulfill various position needs.
Nunnally won’t enroll until the summer, presuming he completes the courses he needs to become eligible, and even if he participated in spring camp, it’s unlikely he’d be vying for a starting job anytime soon. But, with Renard Bell and Calvin Jackson Jr. approaching their final year of eligibility, and both Travell Harris and Jamire Calvin coming up on their fifth year as college players, there should be spots opening in the foreseeable future, and Nunnally is the highest-rated high school receiver recruit in the 2021 class.
“I think he’s athletic for a young man of his size, I think he’s got a high ceiling to continue to develop,” Rolovich said. “He does things you can’t teach. Great speed. There’s a lot of details that go into being a college receiver and we just feel like he’s got a high start point.”
As of now, the breakdown of WSU’s signing class by position is as such: wide receiver (five), linebacker (four), defensive back (three), defensive line (three), Edge (three), offensive line (two), quarterback (two) and punter (one).
At this point, the Cougars should have two or three scholarships to fill. It was suggested to Rolovich the team had one vacant scholarship left, but that was before the coach told reporters Hawaii transfer receiver Lincoln Victor was joining the team as a walk-on, despite most presuming he’d have a scholarship. Moments after Rolovich’s news conference, another scholarship opened when offensive lineman Hunter Mayginnes announced he’d be entering the transfer portal.
The WSU coach refrained from discussing the team’s scholarship situation in detail, responding to a reporter “that’s insider (information), that’s internal information. I don’t know if I can give that out.”
Assuming they have at least two scholarships to fill, the Cougars might use one of those on a running back. The position should be one of the strongest on the team this fall, with Borghi and Deon McIntosh returning, but it’s unlikely either will be with the program after this season, leaving Jouvensly Bazile and Peni Naulu as the only scholarship backs on the roster.
On paper, the Cougars should bring back one of the most experienced rosters in the Pac-12, with all-conference caliber talent at just about every position on offense and a handful on defense.
Rolovich cautions that alone won’t get WSU back to the postseason, or in position to contend for a division title, and recognizes the need for consistency after a 2020 season that seldom saw the Cougars piece together more than two good quarters of football in a single game.
“It’s a positive, but it’s not like it was just some flawless play out there (in 2020),” Rolovich said. “There’s still a lot of improvement, the competition is still going to be hopefully heavy at every position, make everyone better. We have to play better and more consistently to win football games.
“There was some great times, then there was some times when we started to fall apart and we weren’t able to get it back on the rails. That’s kind of the theme of the offseason.”
At some point in the days or weeks after WSU’s 45-28 season-ending defeat at Utah, Rolovich learned ESPN’s analytics model gave the Cougars a 95.4% chance of beating the Utes when de Laura’s 33-yard touchdown run gave the visitors a 28-7 lead just before halftime.
“I printed it out, put it all over the building,” Rolovich said. “We’ve got to get 4.6% better. That’s the thought process. Had a good first half against Oregon, then things start to fall apart. When things are good, it’s always easy for people and I want to make sure we go into next season with less of a front-runner mindset.”