PULLMAN — Several first-string Washington State football players only appeared briefly during Saturday’s scrimmage-like session at Gesa Field. A few of them were held out altogether.
Running back Max Borghi cut and burst outside for a stellar 12-yard carry in the second series of the full-contact 11-on-11 exercise.
The senior superstar only touched the ball one other time.
Veteran offensive tackles Abe Lucas and Liam Ryan spectated from the sideline. And the day’s most productive receivers won’t likely be go-to targets when WSU opens its season Sept. 4 at home against Utah State.
It was a similar story on the defensive side of the ball. Standout edge-rushers such as Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson played just a couple of downs before sliding into cheerleading roles. Experienced linebackers like Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers, along with talented cornerback Jaylen Watson, don’t show up in the box score.
The Cougs have grown confident in their starters, enough to give most of them a breather. Saturday was more about the reserves.
“The guys that are proven and we know what they’re going to give us every Saturday, I don’t need to see them,” WSU defensive coordinator Jake Dickert said. “The first scrimmage was a little bit more older guys. Now let’s get these (younger) guys some reps and let them attack and see what they can do.”
WSU held standard drills for about the first hour of practice, then referees showed up and down-and-distance markers were brought out for a period of team competition, which spanned over 100 plays and featured crowd noise pumped in through the stadium’s PA system.
“The biggest thing is the game simulation,” WSU offensive coordinator Brian Smith said. “Having them play with crowd noise, getting signals from the sideline was big for us.”
WSU’s three competing quarterbacks — Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano, sophomore Jayden de Laura and junior Cammon Cooper — took turns leading a makeshift offense until the final three possessions, which were comprised of scout-team players.
No. 4 running back Jouvensly Bazil and rotational receiver Joey Hobert were the top contributors offensively. Five backs and 10 receivers gained yardage.
When coaches analyze the film, Smith noted, they’ll certainly have a “better feel” for WSU’s depth chart.
“We come away from it believing we’re progressing really well,” he said. “I think we’re becoming more game-ready.”
Overall, an argument can be made that the defense won the day. WSU’s offense scored once — when scout-team players were in.
Smith was pleased that his second and third units weren’t tagged with any delay-of-game penalties and didn’t make any procedural errors, but he said the execution could have been better.
“We had way too many drives that were stalled early or had negative plays,” he said.
“Not turning the ball over, taking care of it, those were positives,” Smith continued. “Where we’ve got to continue to grow as an offense is: If we do start slowing down a little bit, someone’s gotta step up and make a play to kind of get us going again. There’s times where our energy starts going down.”
WSU’s defensive front posted an approximate five sacks and five tackles for loss in the ground game against an offensive line that got plenty of reps in for young tackles Christian Hilborn and Ma’ake Fifita.
Sophomore Ty Garay-Harris logged two touch sacks and junior linebacker Travion Brown made a pair of bell-ringing hits behind the line of scrimmage. Freshman edge-rusher Lawrence Falatea and rookie linebacker Francisco Mauigoa were also bright spots.
Dickert said the front six “did a solid job” getting pressure in the backfield, though he admitted that’s “a tricky deal” in scrimmages.
“Jayden de Laura gets out of half of those. We all know that,” he said.
WSU’s defense fared well on first-down rushing situations, Dickert added, and limited big plays.
“We try to keep it under nine explosive plays per game and today was about a game. I felt like we were close to that,” he said.
Dickert didn’t dial up anything exotic. The Cougs stayed in their base 4-2-5 formation throughout the morning and the defensive boss rotated players frequently at edge, inside linebacker, defensive tackle and cornerback.
He said he’d like to be at least five deep at edge and defensive tackle by the time Week 1 arrives.
“It’s that balance of getting (the older players) some live tackles, yet making sure we get to evaluate the twos and threes,” he said. “Who can we rely on if somebody goes down?”
Dickert kept a close eye on free safety, where a competition is heating up between Halid Djibril and George Hicks III. He mentioned a few other players who had been “targeted” for analysis: Nickel back Armauni Archie, defensive lineman Antonio Pule, and freshmen edge-rushers Raam Stevenson and Andrew Edson.
“When you get them 40 or 50 reps, you really see who these guys are,” he said. “It’s a big piece of that puzzle, really formulating that two-deep now and saying, ‘These are the guys right now that we’re going with.’”
Keeping up with the QBs
Smith acknowledged that the Cougars are aiming to cut one man out of their quarterback competition in the near future.
“We would like to move it closer to two this next week,” Smith said, “and start getting a couple of guys more reps with the ones (starters) and continue to build the cohesion.”
Smith admitted “there are guys that are starting to separate a little bit,” but wouldn’t say who has an advantage between the three signal-callers in the race.
“It’s still really close,” Smith said. “A big part of (finding a starter) is gonna be after this practice, watching the film together as a staff, and we’ll spend a lot of time talking about it and move from there.”
Guarantano took the most snaps among quarterbacks Saturday with approximately 24. De Laura was in for 15 plays and Cooper 14.
By far the Cougs’ most experienced player at the position, Guarantano led a methodical series to open the 11-on-11 period. He guided WSU’s offense 76 yards on 12 plays before the possession ended with a fourth-down incompletion from the 5-yard line.
Overall, he passed 8 of 15 for 99 yards. Hobert totaled 52 yards receiving on the first drive, racking up about 30 yards after catch on two grabs.
The Cougars didn’t trot out many deep concepts. Most passes went underneath or quickly toward the sidelines.
That would explain the returning starter’s stat line — de Laura went 8 of 9 for 30 yards, an average of 3.3 yards per pass.
Cooper threw for just 5 yards on 3 of 7. He was nearly intercepted twice. It appeared safety Hunter Escorcia had picked Cooper on the near sideline, but a ref signaled that the sophomore had a foot out of bounds.
“It’s two scrimmages without a take-away, so we want to get a little better at that,” Dickert said. “We’ll see on the tape. I was trying to beg for that one (Escorcia’s pick).”
Although Victor Gabalis probably won’t challenge for the starting quarterback nod anytime soon, the walk-on sophomore delivered the day’s most memorable offensive play and the only touchdown.
He connected with freshman Reed Shumpert with a deep and accurate strike down the middle for a 60-yard gain before hitting lengthy reserve Anderson Grover for a 10-yard score.
True frosh Xavier Ward played one series with scout-teamers.