Two years ago, even as Mike Leach attempted to keep the nature of Washington State’s quarterback competition close to the vest, it wasn’t a major surprise when Gardner Minshew trotted onto the field to take the first snaps of the season in Laramie, Wyoming.
Those who didn’t see Minshew blow the doors off the team’s second fall scrimmage probably heard about it from friends, or gathered information from reporters who were there documenting it. It was no state secret: a front-runner had emerged.
But, with media members and the general public unable to attend WSU’s fall scrimmage Saturday afternoon, a byproduct of heightened COVID-19 health and safety measures, the often reliable “eye test” wasn’t an option when it came to determining who made the biggest and loudest statement behind center at Martin Stadium.
It may not have been necessary, either.
When Nick Rolovich was asked a fairly generic question in the post-scrimmage interview — “Did anyone in particular stick out to you today … that really just impressed you?” — the first-year coach made a request.
“Yeah, give me a position,” he said.
“Quarterback,” the reporter responded.
“Oh, I thought Cam did some good things today,” Rolovich said.
“Cam,” or Cammon Cooper, the redshirt sophomore from Utah, was initially the only player the coach singled out.
For those trying to draw conclusions from hints, Cooper was also the only quarterback invited to speak with reporters when the scrimmage concluded, not to mention the first this preseason camp. It should be noted Rolovich has a no-freshman policy when it comes to media interview, which disqualified Jayden de Laura from speaking Saturday, and conceivably the rest of the season.
Rolovich noted de Laura was impressive in flashes and the unofficial scrimmage stats reflected that. Cooper was 9 of 15 for 147 yards, one touchdown and one interception, de Laura was 10 of 14 for 133 yards with one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown and redshirt freshman Gunner Cruz, the third horse in the QB race, was 11 of 16 for 69 yards.
Still, Cooper seemed to command most of the attention from the coach during a post-scrimmage Zoom call.
“I thought he was consistent, I thought he was in command, I thought he knew where to go with the ball,” Rolovich said. “I think we can still get balls out quicker, but for the opportunities he had, I thought he performed well. Now we can see (it) on film, but that’s just my gut coming out of the practice. I thought Jayden did some good things, too.”
Cooper mostly agreed with his coach’s evaluation and acknowledged there was a level of comfort executing an offense he’s been studying on film since January.
“I think it was a good day today,” Cooper said. “I felt pretty good back in the pocket making decisions, so just getting the ball out quick and we have some great receivers. Getting the ball in their hands, they made a lot of great plays after the catch, so I think that was really good.”
Asked to highlight a positive play for the offense, Cooper pointed to a touchdown pass he threw to freshman wide receiver Joey Hobert, who’s been praised repeatedly by players and coaches since camp started and had the most notable stat line by a wideout Saturday, hauling in six passes for 113 yards and the scrimmage’s only two touchdowns. A highlight video from the scrimmage showed Hobert tipping a pass to himself, cruising into space and striding to the end zone for what was considered a 56-yard TD.
Cooper lamented the offense’s inability to finish off a drive in the red zone, but pointed out the silver lining of intersquad scrimmages. Bad offensive moments are often facilitated by good defensive ones, and red-zone defense is one of the three main categories new defensive coordinator Jake Dickert has zeroed in on since arriving on the Palouse.
“Stopping offenses in the red zone is something we struggled with last year,” linebacker Jahad Woods said. “Coach Dickert implementing the defense we have now, and seeing how successful Wyoming was last year with goal-line defense, third-down defense, is cool to watch. It feels good that we can stop the offense and have success on third down and in the red zone.
“It’s going to be a huge turnaround this season.”
The 4-2-5 scheme Dickert brought to WSU from Wyoming was successful in its first trial run, generating 10 touch sacks during Saturday’s scrimmage. Freshman “edge” Justin Lohrenz led the defense with three sacks, while another rookie “edge” player, Moon Ashby, chipped in two, and redshirt sophomore “edge” Brennan Jackson had two more.
“There was about three instances where we had explosive plays down inside the 15, 10, and they bowed up down there and forced field goals, which is excellent in my opinion,” Rolovich said of the defense. “I saw some not major ball-security issues offensively, but I know (the defense) forced a fumble, got an interception. … I think we’ll just have to play a lot of guys, so that’s why today was good to get them banging around and lining up without the coaches behind them and stuff. So I thought it was real positive.”
Nickel Halid Djibril had the lone interception, while Joshua Erling forced a fumble that was recovered by freshman cornerback Chau Smith-Wade. Ayden Hector, the true freshman cornerback and former four-star prospect from Eastside Catholic who recently joined the Cougars as a walk-on was also credited with a sack.
Both of WSU’s top running backs were impressive, as well. Redshirt freshman Jouvensly Bazil showed his breakaway speed on a 28-yard rushing touchdown and led the Cougars with 93 yards, on five carries. Junior Max Borghi had five carries for 70 yards.