Even if the college football season goes on as planned this fall, Washington State, due to the Pac-12’s scheduling rotation, won’t be crossing paths with Arizona, outside of a potential — albeit unlikely — meeting in the conference-championship game.
But right now, Nick Rolovich and the Cougars are in hot competition with Kevin Sumlin and the Wildcats.
Despite the NCAA-mandated recruiting dead period that’s knocked everyone in the sport off schedule, of the 65 programs that make up college football’s “Power Five” conferences, 63 have at least one prospect committed in the 2021 recruiting class. The only two that don’t share a conference affiliation in the Pac-12.
Arizona’s delay most likely stems from the program’s pedigree and recent lack of success. The Wildcats have a two-year rolling total of nine wins, haven’t reached a bowl game since 2017, posted the fewest Pac-12 wins (two) by a team in either division last season and were the only team in the conference not represented in the recent NFL draft.
Washington State, on the other hand, faces a different type of crutch.
“I think a lot of it is they’re victims of circumstance right now,” said Brandon Huffman, a national recruiting editor for 247sports.com.
When new coach Nick Rolovich was hired in mid-January, one of the first priorities was cobbling together the final pieces of the 2020 signing class — something the Cougars believe they did successfully. Rolovich and his staff took stock of what they had, made calls to reaffirm the intentions of players who’d signed with Mike Leach, and identified — and hosted — new targets who were better suited to play in their schemes, or hadn’t been scouted by the previous regime.
While the Cougars were concentrated on the present, though, many of their Pac-12 rivals were already assembling the future.
“Take for instance, Washington didn’t sign anyone in February. They signed everyone in December so they could use January to see 2021s and 2022s,” Huffman said. “Washington State had to do in-home (visits) with 2020s and try to put the finishing touches (on their recruiting class). Their big push was going to be March and April.”
Instead, March and April were nullified by COVID-19. It was bad enough that Rolovich couldn’t evaluate his new players during the months that were dedicated to spring camp, but the novel coronavirus outbreak wiped out many of WSU’s scheduled recruiting visits and a few pivotal dates of the spring evaluation period: junior day and the Crimson and Gray Game.
Huffman said “at least six kids” from the state of Washington were planning on making trips to Pullman for those events, but were denied when the NCAA rolled out recruiting regulations that prevent in-person contact and limit coaches to phone, text and social-media communication.
“It was going to be a pretty active visit as far as unofficials,” Rolovich said during a conference call in late March. “The nice thing was, we were going to be able to secondary visit some of our early signees. So we had a chance to kind of be around each other. I thought that was going to be good during the spring game. I thought we had, you know, some good responses from the local and in-state high-school coaches that were going to come over a few times. We had a couple good junior days that I thought we were going to be effective with. Washington State is a place, I think, you’ve got to get on campus and see this place and then feel it. I think it’s a positive for us in recruiting. I think it was trending the right direction.”
Rolovich still wants to give recruits that experience, even if they aren’t able to step foot in Pullman. He’s determined to.
Last week, WSU’s official football Twitter account showed four photos of Rolovich wearing a crimson track suit and riding a yellow Trek mountain bike through Pullman with an iPhone duct-taped to his hat and headphones in his ear. Lucas Coley, a three-star quarterback prospect from San Antonio, was apparently on the other line – the recipient of a unique virtual tour that stopped at the Cougar Pride statue, Martin Stadium, North Grand Avenue and the home of quarterbacks coach Craig Stutzmann.
“I actually had a recruit send this to me and said, that was the coolest thing he’d seen and I think that just kind of is (Rolovich’s) personality where it’s like, ‘Listen, I’ve got to do everything I can to put the attention on this program and on this school and on this town,’ ” Huffman said. “And I think that’s why they’re going to have success in normal years because he was in a very similar situation in Hawaii.
“You never heard the kids talk about Leach and especially the Washington kids. It was (running backs coach/Washington recruiter) Eric Mele this, Eric Mele that, with the occasional Mason Miller if it was an offensive lineman, maybe (Steve) Spurrier (Jr.) if he was a receiver. But you never heard them really talk about Leach. Now, it’s a healthy dose of Rolovich, whether it’s a Washington kid or a kid in California, or in Oregon.”
Rolovich’s activity and personality on social media have endeared him to the millennials who are considering a future with his football program, and he’s taken creative measures to set the Cougars apart from their opponents. The coach told The Spokesman-Review during a virtual live chat on the Northwest Passages Forum that he’d assigned his kids to draw pictures on cards that were being shipped to recruits, reasoning, “Maybe it’ll brighten their day.”
And make an imprint, too.
“Kids love him,” Huffman said. “… Guys feel that comfort level with him and they see, here’s a guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously, loves football, loves to coach. But he really wants these guys to have that personality connection as well.”
The Cougars are still recruiting upstream when it comes to the 2021 class. At this point last year, they already had three players committed. USC is the Pac-12’s current leader, with nine commits — including a quartet of four-star prospects, per 247Sports.com — while Cal (seven), Oregon (five) and Washington (five) have all established strong foundations. Nationally speaking, nobody is outdoing Ohio State, which has 17 commits and 12 four-star recruits pledged.
In the Pac-12, three programs — WSU, UW and Colorado — will be guided by new head coaches this fall, presuming COVID-19 doesn’t eliminate the season. UW’s recruiting hasn’t been derailed, or even impacted, because the transition from Chris Petersen to defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake was seamless and the Huskies retained much of the coaching staff. Colorado’s coaching shuffle came later than WSU’s, but the Buffaloes also kept a few of their coaches, and the program’s lone commit was a holdover from the last regime.
“Washington State, it’s brand-new everybody,” Huffman said. “So they’ve got a little bit of a mulligan, I would say.”
When should these preliminary concerns turn into full-on panic for WSU?
“In a normal cycle, I would always say by June,” Huffman said. “If you get through the spring evaluation period and you don’t have a commitment, then it’s time to panic. I would say in the cycle we’re in right now, it’s a little bit harder to gauge that. Then you throw in the fact you have a brand-new staff who came in at the worst of times just from a standpoint of, oh well, they’ll get everybody in the spring. Then there is no spring. I would say, if we’re having this conversation again in mid-July or early August, and the season’s going to be played as planned, then there might be something to worry about.
“But again, I think a lot of it is they’re victims of circumstance right now.”