It’s the same approach Washington State would apply to any football game: If you have to start slow, make sure you finish strong.
On May 1, the Cougars were one of just two teams in the Pac-12 Conference — and one of two at the Power Five level — without a commitment in the 2021 recruiting class. Some made more of it than others, but those were the facts.
On Oct. 26, when it felt as though Nick Rolovich and his staff had overcome a rocky start on the recruiting trail, nailing down 18 commitments before Halloween, a defensive back from Southern California revealed on social media he’d be reopening his recruitment. Over the next 50 days, three other WSU commits followed — two of the four decommits leaving for rivals in the Pac-12 Conference.
So, the Cougars may not have won the first quarter or the third quarter of the 2021 recruiting cycle, but there’s no question they dominated the fourth.
Within the last 12 days, WSU added two new commitments and on the first day college football players were allowed to sign financial-aid agreements, two others that weren’t previously committed to the school inked letters of intent, bringing the Cougars’ 2021 class to 19 players — 18 of those coming from the high school ranks and one other from the junior-college level.
Wide receiver Josh Meredith, a former Fresno State commit, and edge Sam Carrell, previously committed to Baylor, made social media announcements within the last two weeks they’d be playing their college football in Pullman, but the real surprises came on Wednesday.
Gavin Barthiel, a linebacker from Florida, had previous plans to play in the ACC at Georgia Tech, but flipped to the Cougars on Wednesday, and Hawaiian wide receiver De’Zhaun Stribling signed a binding agreement with WSU after all signs pointed toward him staying on the island and playing for the University of Hawaii program Rolovich was in charge of until January.
“I think it was a very deep recruiting, it wasn’t any surface stuff,” Rolovich said. “I’m happy they want to be a part of not only Washington State, but Pullman, and do some great things here.”
The Cougars were able to cast a wide net with their 2021 class, reeling in players from Australia and American Samoa, along with 10 different states: Hawaii, Georgia, Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California and Washington.
It’s possible they received the country’s earliest letter of intent, when Australian punter Nick Haberer signed at 1:50 p.m. Pacific time on Tuesday, or 8:50 a.m. Melbourne time on Wednesday. Linebacker Francisco Mauigoa, three hours behind his coaching staff in ‘Ili’ili, American Samoa, was one of the last to sign a binding agreement on Wednesday.
“Kind of just how it happened and a lot of the assistant coaches have connections,” Rolovich said of WSU’s wide recruiting footprint. “It wasn’t something that was a goal of this signing class. We’ll go wherever we need to go to find Cougs that want to be here, but I think it had a lot to do with prior recruiting connections and the trust our assistants developed with coaches around the world.”
It was WSU’s goal to load up on players who could fill the front seven of Jake Dickert’s 4-3 defense. The Cougars signed three high-schoolers who are classified under the broad umbrella of “defensive linemen,” but they added three edge rushers and three linebackers.
“You can see it, it starts up front and that was the emphasis the whole way,” Dickert told radio broadcasters Matt Chazanow and Alex Brink on WSU’s National Signing Day show Wednesday morning. “That’s going to be the emphasis going forward and that’s going to be the emphasis in this defense for eternity. Our big emphasis there is to grow them, find athletes, find edge rushers that can have athletic ability, find guys that maybe played linebacker that can slide down.”
It was imperative for the Cougars to sign a handful of wide receivers, as well. They’ve lost three scholarship wideouts to the transfer portal since the summer and will be down two more when Renard Bell and Calvin Jackson Jr. leave after the 2021 season — presuming both stick around in the first place.
The Cougars restocked the shelves at receiver, adding bigger targets who have the ability to create mismatches on the outside, in Stribling (6-2, 195) and CJ Moore (6-5, 175), as well as small, electric slots in Meredith (6-0, 170) and Orion Peters (5-10, 170) who should be able to stretch the field vertically the same way Bell and Travell Harris have done this season in Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense.
“It’s always nice getting new toys in and very talented ones,” wide receivers coach Andre Allen said on the NSD show. “So I’m excited about this group.”
WSU added one quarterback, three-star Southern California prospect Xavier Ward, along with two offensive linemen, two defensive backs and a punter to round out the 19-man group that signed on Wednesday.
WSU’s 2021 class checks in as the eighth-best in the Pac-12, according to 247Sports.com. Most coaches cast off recruiting rankings, but if that holds through National Signing Day in February, it would signify WSU’s best finish since 2015.
Before then, the Cougars plan on filling the only hole that remains in the class — running back — and Rolovich’s staff intentionally left a few other spots open to see how the next few months play out, not just in terms of high school and junior college recruiting but also with the NCAA transfer portal.
“With the explosion of the transfer portal, there’s places we were hoping to recruit that didn’t play their senior year,” Rolovich said. “I thought if they were going to play in the spring, there’d be a real opportunity to kind of see who develops into their senior year when a lot of people probably don’t have the same amount of numbers to give out. I think we could’ve done some nice work with the guys whose seasons got delayed. But yeah, we’re going to take a running back.”
At least five of the 19 players who signed on Wednesday intend to enroll early at WSU, meaning they’ll begin taking classes in January and participate in spring ball.