Nick Rolovich is turning to a familiar conference, the Mountain West, and an old foe, Wyoming, as he starts to build his defensive coaching staff at Washington State.
According to Adam Rittenberg of ESPN, Rolovich is bringing in Wyoming defensive coordinator Jake Dickert to fill the same position in Pullman and lead the turnaround for a unit that ranked 111th nationally in total defense last year. A source close to WSU indicated the hire of Dickert hadn’t been finalized yet, but that Rolovich and the Cougars had targeted him to fill one of the most important positions on the staff.
Rittenberg also reported that two of Dickert’s Wyoming assistants, AJ Cooper and John Richardson, will be joining the Cougars’ staff. Last season, Cooper was Wyoming’s defensive run-game coordinator, defensive ends coach and co-special teams coordinator, while Richardson was the Cowboys’ cornerbacks coach.
Wyoming announced the departure of all three coaches in a news release.
The Cougars haven’t officially announced any assistant coaching hires, but Rolovich told The Spokesman-Review on Thursday during his introductory news conference that he hopes to bring former Hawaii offensive coordinator/running backs coach Brian Smith, passing game coordinator/quarterback coach Craig Stutzmann and special teams coach Michael Ghobrial with him to WSU, along with chief of staff Jason Cvercko.
All four were in attendance for Rolovich’s news conference at Martin Stadium.
Wyoming’s defense was 43rd nationally last season, allowing 363.8 yards a game, but the Cowboys played superb defense in the red zone and allowed only 17.8 points a game – good enough for sixth in the nation. They had the sixth-best red-zone defense in the country, allowing only 16 touchdowns on 45 opportunities.
The Cowboys concluded an eight-victory season in 2019 in the Arizona Bowl, where they beat Georgia State 38-17. Dickert’s defense allowed 31 points in a season-opening victory over Missouri, but didn’t allow an opponent to score 30 points the rest of the way and held six Mountain West opponents to 20 points or less.
In his news conference, Rolovich didn’t go into detail as to what the Cougars will be doing on defense, but physicality seemed to be high on the list of priorities.
“Schematics, I’m not going to get into,” Rolovich said. “And I told these guys already, whoever we play, on Sunday when they open their eyes in their bed, they remember ‘Oh yeah, I played the Cougs yesterday.’ ”
Rolovich also told The Spokesman-Review he wants to make the Cougars bigger on defense, but that he’d also have to be mindful of the current roster as he seeks out his defensive coordinator.
“I’ve only seem them in street clothes and haven’t shook all their hands as far as body types, but you can see that there’s quickness over size emphasis,” he said. “I think that does go into your thought process early on, with how to start the season. Just to me, you’re looking at definitely some of those odd packages in there because you’ve got a lot of second-level body types — I don’t know how else to say that. But that’s not a kid’s fault or even a bad scheme. That’s just what they recruited and who’s on the roster. We don’t have time to just, ‘OK, let’s revamp this thing.’ That needs to be in my thought process as we go with a D-coordinator.”
At WSU, Dickert will have the task of overhauling a defense that ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 and the nation in a variety of categories.
The Cougars’ ranked 111th in total defense, allowing more than 450 yards a game, and their scoring defense ranked 93rd, at 31.4 points allowed per game. WSU conceded at least 50 points in two separate games, giving up 67 in a defeat against UCLA and 53 in a victory over Oregon State, but the Cougars will return a handful of starting/rotational players, including Jahad Woods, an All-Pac-12 honorable mention linebacker.
Dickert recently finished his third season in Laramie and first as Wyoming’s defensive coordinator. He was hired in 2017 to coach the Cowboys’ safeties and mentored three-time All-Mountain West safety Andrew Wingard, who now plays for the Jacksonville Jaguars and is a roommate of former WSU quarterback Gardner Minshew. Another one of Dickert’s Wyoming safeties, Marcus Epps, was a finalist for the 2018 Burlsworth Trophy and was selected in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL draft.
The Cougars routed the Cowboys in 2018, scoring 41 points in Minshew’s debut, but Wyoming improved from there, allowing 22 points a game under former defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton, who left after the season to take the same job at Kansas State.
Prior to Wyoming, Dickert worked as the safeties coach and co-special teams coordinator at South Dakota State, helping the Jackrabbits win the 2016 Missouri Valley Conference. Dickert was with current Wyoming coach Craig Bohl for three seasons while Bohl was at national FCS power North Dakota State.
The former Wisconsin-Stevens Point wide receiver has worked at a variety of other small schools, serving as special-teams coordinator/defensive backs coach at South Dakota, as a defensive backs coach at Southeast Missouri State, as a defensive coordinator at Division II Augustana and as a defensive coordinator/linebackers coach at Minnesota State.
Cooper has spent the past six seasons in Laramie, coaching defensive ends and special teams, and was at NDSU before that, working with the Bison defensive ends from 2009-13. A Phoenix product, Cooper played tight end at NDSU and signed a free-agent deal with the Green Bay Packers when his college career ended.
Richardson was the Cowboys’ cornerbacks coach the past six seasons and oversaw the group in 2017, when Wyoming led the country in takeaways, forcing 38 turnovers. A product of Compton, Calif., Richardson played cornerback at North Dakota State and coached in Fargo from 2009-13, serving as Bison cornerback coach in 2012 and ’13. From 2011-13, NDSU went 43-2 overall and 22-2 in the Missouri Valley Conference.
On the offensive side of the ball, Mark Weber, who’s been coaching college football for nearly four decades and most recently worked for Rolovich at Hawaii, has accepted a position at his 15th college, joining the new Washington State coach in Pullman.