HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — One thing is already inherently clear about Washington State’s experience at Pac-12 football media day in 2021: it’ll be unlike any other since the conference’s inaugural gathering 30 years ago.
That is saying something, considering last year’s event, held exclusively via Zoom because of the COVID-19 pandemic, was unique.
The 2021 event should offer more normalcy for the schools attending, but recent developments in Pullman guarantee a different media day for a smaller than usual contingent of Washington State representatives. We’ll start there as we focus on the top Cougar story lines to watch as WSU takes the podium — and the virtual podium — Tuesday morning at the W Hollywood Hotel.
When he was coaching at the University of Hawaii, Nick Rolovich was usually hard to miss at Mountain West media day. One year he brought an Elvis Presley impersonator with him to the annual event. Another year someone dressed as Britney Spears joined the coach. In 2019 he hired a fortune teller to tag along.
But not only will Rolovich be without a plus-one at Pac-12 media day, WSU’s second-year coach won’t be there. Last week Rolovich announced on Twitter that he has elected not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and won’t attend media day. Media members can attend without proof of vaccination, but coaches and players must be vaccinated as they’ll be participating in multiple activities without masks, ESPN reported.
In his statement, Rolovich indicated he “will not comment further on my decision.” To be sure, those questions will still come when Rolovich is invited to the virtual podium in Hollywood. Further, the two vaccinated WSU players attending, running back Max Borghi and linebacker Jahad Woods, will more than likely field questions about their coach’s absence, his stance on the COVID-19 vaccine and if/how it’ll impact the Cougars on the field this fall.
Rolovich may shut down questions regarding his vaccination status and steer reporters onto other topics — he’s certainly not obligated to provide an answer — but he should also understand how that approach might be received, and how it may actually draw more attention to an issue WSU administrators would surely rather squash.
Nonetheless, reporters who don’t cover WSU often have disregarded the Cougars at media day in favor of higher-profile schools and other pressing conference-wide topics, will be at their seats, armed with questions when Rolovich’s face pops up on a Zoom screen at 9:20 a.m.
Outside of conference realignment and potential recruiting violations at Arizona State, there may not be a more intriguing story line at media day this year than the one involving WSU and its second-year coach.
There’s no way for the Cougars to sidestep the conversation at this point, but how it evolves will ultimately depend on the manner in which Rolovich and his players address the topic Tuesday with new commissioner George Kliavkoff and virtually everyone in the conference watching.
The race for a starting QB
Had it not been for Rolovich’s tweet last week, WSU’s looming quarterback battle would have returned to media day as the top Cougar story line for the fourth year running.
When the Cougars open fall camp in the next week or two, returning starter Jayden de Laura, backup Cammon Cooper and graduate transfer Jarrett Guarantano will conceivably have equal opportunities to win the No. 1 job.
It’s our guess all three will share reps for the first week/two weeks of fall camp until coaches narrow the competition to two. Those two will trade blows for another week or two until the Cougars identify a starter, theoretically at least one week before the season opener against Utah State.
Rolovich won’t be able to offer much more intel Tuesday on the QB battle than he did after the final day of spring camp, but media day serves as somewhat of a checkpoint. If any of the QBs made significant strides in the weight room, learning the offense on paper or in de Laura’s case, earning the trust of his teammates back after serving a suspension during spring camp, Rolovich may relay that information to reporters.
It’s unclear where de Laura or Cooper spent their summer, or what their offseason training regimens entailed, but a report from The Athletic said Guarantano spent at least a portion of his summer in Southern California working with QB guru Jordan Palmer, who has mentored NFL signal-callers such as Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen, Sam Darnold and Joe Burrow.
Impact of NIL
New laws allowing athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness are still less than a month old, and 24 of the Pac-12’s most marketable football players will be in attendance for Tuesday’s gathering.
WSU’s Borghi and Woods will join a group of heralded Pac-12 stars that includes USC quarterback Kedon Slovis, Oregon defensive lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux and Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels.
Though many athletes in the Pac-12 and elsewhere await sponsorship opportunities that best fit them, others have already agreed to endorsement deals — some with smaller-scale businesses in their hometowns or college towns and others with nationally recognizable companies.
Borghi recently announced a partnership with the video-messaging platform Cameo, which allows celebrities to send customized videos to fans for a fixed price. WSU’s beloved senior running back will have an opportunity Tuesday to talk about the impact of NIL, sponsorship deals he has signed or those that may be in the works and the motivation behind sharing 100% of Cameo proceeds with the Cougars’ starting offensive line.
Additionally, most Pac-12 coaches haven’t answered NIL-specific questions in a public setting since the NCAA announced its interim NIL policy in early July. They’ll get their fill Tuesday, though.
The Cougars expected to enter the 2021 season with plenty of talent, and even more depth, at wide receiver. With COVID-19 rules affording seniors another year of eligibility, WSU had a chance to return all four starters and 1,019 yards of production from the four-game 2020 season.
With news coming Friday that Renard Bell tore an ACL, forcing the starting “Y” receiver to miss the season, and both Jamire Calvin and Lucas Bacon leaving the program, WSU’s receiving corps is down to just one returning starter in 2021 and 415 yards of returning production.
WSU’s starting QB will either be de Laura, one of the nation’s youngest returners, or someone who has never started a game in Rolovich’s offense. A productive, experienced receiving corps would have been a luxury for the man under center.
Instead, the Cougars won’t just have to cram to find the person who’ll be throwing the passes this fall, but also the ones who’ll be catching them. Bodies won’t be in short supply. The Cougars should have plenty to choose from, with more than a dozen scholarship receivers on the roster and two or three walk-ons who looked promising in the spring.
But none is as experienced as Bell, who has played a role in 30 wins during his time with the Cougars, and it’s possible none has the top-end talent of Calvin, who was constantly praised by coaches near the end of the season as someone who was finding his rhythm in Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense.
The magnitude of those losses may not be felt until the Cougars take the field in September, but on Tuesday we should at least get a sense of how Rolovich feels about the group, and who may be best equipped to step into starting roles this fall.