It may be a good year to be a true freshman on Washington State’s football team.
A variety of circumstances — some related to COVID-19, others not — could usher WSU’s youngest players onto the field earlier than expected this season. Unlike other years, when WSU’s freshmen would spend much of their first season learning the nuts and bolts of the playbook, in 2020 they’ll benefit from being on a level playing field as their older teammates.
The Cougars have dealt with offseason roster attrition and could face the same COVID-19 hurdles many of their FBS peers in other conferences have already. Both things could open the door for freshmen who’d normally have to spend a year or two waiting in line.
If the Cougars do plug in a few youngsters, don’t assume it’s just out of necessity. From quarterback to cornerback, the 2020 signing class has already made an impression in preseason camp. Here are five players whose named have gained traction after one week of practice, and could make an instant impact when the team opens the season at Oregon State on Nov. 7.
Joey Hobert, wide receiver: Mike Leach, usually with the help of inside receivers coach/USC recruiter Dave Nichol, had a knack for identifying unheralded slot receivers from the greater Los Angeles area. Leach signed Hobert, but Rolovich, who also offered the San Juan Hills standout at Hawaii, will get to reap the rewards of his production the next four or five years.
There should be lots of it — potentially within the next four months, too.
Media members weren’t able to watch Saturday’s scrimmage, but Hobert seemed to have the best outing by a skill player, matching Travell Harris for the team-high in receptions, with six. He turned those six catches into 113 yards and had the only two touchdown receptions of the afternoon, from Cammon Cooper and Jayden de Laura.
“Joey’s awesome, he’s been really smart with the offense, catching on super quick,” Cooper said. “I think that helps him out with being on the same page as us, as quarterbacks. Being where we want him to be and just makes him open, so get the ball in his hands and he makes plays, too.”
Chau Smith-Wade, cornerback: In a media webinar with Pac-12 reporters last week, WSU running back Max Borghi was asked to provide “a name or two of a teammate who maybe people aren’t talking about right now, but maybe people will be talking about when all is said and done.”
“As far as looking at freshmen that I’ve been watching, Chau Smith-Wade, he’s been balling out at corner,” Borghi said before offering up Hobert’s name as well.
Junior Derrick Langford, senior George Hicks III and junior college transfer/former USC signee Jaylen Watson were in the mix for playing time at cornerback before four-star prospect and walk-on Ayden Hector joined the team last week, so the position battle Smith-Wade enters seems, on the surface, as competitive as any on the field.
It’s unclear if Smith-Wade’s emergence will translate to significant playing time this season, but the Chicago native has obviously adapted to the college environment and should at least add depth to a position group that didn’t have much of it 2019.
“You can just see flashes of what he can become and it’s exciting,” defensive coordinator Jake Dickert said. “It’s more exciting for his mindset. He knows how to practice, you can see him in the weight room off the field he’s taking care of his business. It’s awesome to see that young man operate just every day.”
Jayden de Laura, quarterback: Well, duh … De Laura is in a three-way quarterback race with redshirt freshman Gunner Cruz and redshirt sophomore Cammon Cooper, but Rolovich — and the official scrimmage stats provided by WSU — suggested the true freshman and Cooper had the best showings Saturday at Martin Stadium.
De Laura’s numbers alone were as or more impressive than Cooper’s, though Rolovich was more complimentary of Cooper for his command and release in a post-scrimmage interview. De Laura was the only QB to account for multiple touchdowns and completed 10-of-14 passes for 133 yards, one TD and no interceptions. He was also credited with a 13-yard rushing score.
The Honolulu native’s experience in the run-and-shoot offense gives him a built-in advantage WSU’s other QBs don’t have. Not everything translates, necessarily, but Rolovich has already noticed areas where the freshman looks more comfortable than his older teammates.
“It’s really a way to look at things that I think Jayden feels comfortable with,” the coach said. “Whether it’s manipulation with his own defender, whether it’s footwork. I think he had an easier time getting into the drop, because he had done similar drops before, where some of the guys that were here had to work on it more. I just know having the mindset of optional routes probably translated well for Jayden.”
Nathaniel James, nose tackle: With Will Rodgers III sliding over to “edge” and Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei graduating, next to Dallas Hobbs and Lamonte McDougle, the Cougars don’t return a nose tackle/defensive tackle who played in more than four games last season.
Mysteriously, neither Hobbs or McDougle showed up in scrimmage stats Saturday, and their names haven’t come up once since in interviews with coaches and players since preseason camp started on Oct. 9.
Either way, there should be some playing time available at nose tackle and defensive tackle, and James seems to be an early candidate to fill one of the two positions.
“I think (James) is going to be in the mix up front,” Dickert said. “We’re excited about what he can do. Every day is another chance and opportunity for him to get better.”
The 6-foot, 270-pound freshman from Avon, Indiana, carries a frame similar to that of McDougle (6-foot, 290 pounds), but like McDougle, moves fluidly for his size. He was productive as a senior at Avon High, rolling up 74 tackles as one of the state’s best defensive linemen, and contributing 10 tackles-for-loss with six sacks.
“Not a huge man in terms of height, but very quick, very explosive,” Rolovich said. “I’m excited for him and his future here.”
Gabriel Lopez, “Edge”: Speaking of high-school production, few in WSU’s signing class were as impressive as Lopez, who had 101 tackles, 26 tackles-for-loss and 13 sacks in his final season at Las Vegas’ Desert Pines High.
The Cougars are fairly deep at “Edge,” but Rodgers III and Willie Taylor III are seniors, so if both choose to leave school after the 2020 season, it’s easy to see Lopez competing for playing time with Ron Stone Jr., Brennan Jackson and other members of the 2020 signing class, such as Moon Ashby and Justin Lohrenz.
Only two “edges” will start for the Cougars, but up to four or five could play in a single game, so Lopez may also sneak in some field time as a freshman, especially if two or three of the rotation players miss games this season.
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound rookie had one touch sack in Saturday’s scrimmage.
“(Lopez) has really jumped off the table to us, just with his physicality,” Dickert said. “He uses his hands well, he’s active on our defensive front and just excited about a lot of our young guys and where can be.”