PULLMAN — Throughout the first four days of Washington State fall football camp, we devoted most of our attention to the Cougars’ top talents — the veterans and established starters.
Now, let’s shine a light on some of the up-and-comers — early-preseason freshman standouts, under-the-radar rookies and bright youngsters who probably won’t crack the starting lineup this season, but could make impacts in reserve roles.
Texan tailback flashes speed
When true freshman speedster Jaylen Jenkins accelerates through a gap in the line of scrimmage, he shows “no hesitation,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert noted after Saturday’s practice, “and it’s fun to watch.”
“You see it when he hits that hole — it’s different,” Dickert added. “He’s been a real good spark plug. He can bring a little thunder and lightning to that room, which I think is really needed.”
Few Cougar players — if any — are as fast and elusive as Jenkins, whose quick-twitch running style has produced explosive plays and impressed coaches throughout the first four days of fall camp. Jenkins appears to have worked his way up WSU’s depth chart. He saw plenty of action last week with the top two offensive units.
Is there a chance he sees the field on fall Saturdays?
“Absolutely,” Dickert said. “I think he’s picked it up way faster than anyone thought. (RB coach Mark) Atuaia is putting him in the fire, too. He’s taken a lot of reps through the first four days, so he can learn.
“We’re going to continue to feed Jaylen through a fire hose and get him a lot of reps. In Scrimmage 1 (scheduled for next Saturday), he’ll take a lot of those reps so we can really see what he can do.”
The 5-foot-8, 177-pound Jenkins offers a change of pace for a WSU rushing attack that will be spearheaded this season by two power running backs in stocky junior Nakia Watson and Djouvensky Schlenbaker, a true frosh bruiser from Bellingham who debuted his fierce ball-carrying abilities in spring camp.
“When I watch that running-back group, I think (Jenkins) just provides something different that we don’t have,” Dickert said Wednesday. “You see Nakia, you see Djouvensky — you see the big backs — then all of a sudden you see Jaylen.”
Jenkins posted staggering stat totals last season at Allen High — a national high-school powerhouse in the Dallas area. He was named co-MVP in one of the most competitive high school districts in the country after logging 1,519 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns on 150 carries (an average of 10.1 yards per attempt). Jenkins added 318 yards and two scores on 26 receptions. He could turn out to be WSU’s best pass-catching option at running back.
Second-year receivers in line for roles
Orion Peters and Tsion Nunnally, both of whom redshirted as true freshmen in 2021, emerged during spring camp as potential contributors this season in WSU’s pass-heavy Air Raid offense.
“Orion Peters is one (young WR) who’s always been standing out to me,” Dickert said in April, later adding of Nunnally: “We’ve been waiting for big-boy receivers on the outside, and he’s that budding star we’ve been continually waiting for.”
At fall camp, the two seem to be fixed pieces in WSU’s receiver rotation.
“Orion and Tsion, they’re doing really good,” outside receiver Donovan Ollie said Saturday when asked about WSU’s most impressive younger receivers. “They’re starting to mature and get into the game. They know how to use their bodies. They know their tendencies. They’re looking great.”
Peters, a fleet-footed slotback from Inglewood, California, has taken a significant amount of snaps with WSU’s first unit — and has come up with a number of highlight-reel catches. Peters has proven himself a crisp route-runner with soft hands, who can cut on a dime and isn’t afraid to lay out for difficult receptions.
Expect Peters to be the first slot receiver off the bench this season, behind star upperclassmen Renard Bell and Lincoln Victor.
Nunnally, a 6-3 jump-ball target from Santa Rosa, California, might end up being the Cougars’ first outside receiver off the bench when WSU kicks off its season Sept. 3 against Idaho.
Returning starters De’Zhaun Stribling and Ollie are locked in at the top of the depth chart. Nunnally is competing with Zeriah Beason for the third position. Beason, a sophomore Oregon State transfer, has been the more consistent of the two so far at camp — in terms of drops — but Nunnally has an advantage in range and can outleap defensive backs on 50/50 balls.
Rookie defenders to keep an eye on
Dickert didn’t hesitate when asked Saturday to highlight true freshman standouts.
“On the defensive side of the ball, it’s real easy — it’s Rashad McKenzie,” he said.
A defensive tackle from Mission Hills, California, and one of the top-rated recruits in WSU’s 2022 class, McKenzie packed on nearly 40 pounds this offseason and entered fall camp listed at 6-6 and 293 pounds. An edge rusher in high school, McKenzie has become a formidable bull-rusher on the inside.
“He looks the part,” Dickert said. “He’s physical. He’s using his hands. He’s been disruptive. That’s the way they need to be. I’m just excited about his progress. I thought, coming from an edge player in high school to the inside — in tight, confined spaces — that it’d take him a little bit longer to get comfortable. But man, he’s looking really, really good.”
WSU’s D-tackle position is deep and experienced this season. Five key players return from the 2021 group, and the Cougars signed Virginia transfer Nusi Malani this offseason. So, McKenzie’s reps at camp have thus far come with the reserve teams. While it’s unlikely that he breaks into the rotation this year, McKenzie’s first few days in a WSU uniform signaled a bright future.
WSU’s cornerback position took a hit to its depth this summer, when senior Kaleb Ford-Dement underwent season-ending shoulder surgery. The Cougars are looking for a CB to fill that void.
Dickert hopes to have five CBs ready to contribute by the time the season starts. The Cougars are settled on four of them: senior Derrick Langford Jr., sophomore Chau Smith-Wade, junior Chris Jackson and Utah State transfer Cam Lampkin.
The fifth spot is up for grabs. Dickert said WSU could convert sophomore nickel Armauni Archie, or the Cougars might look to a true freshman.
Dickert singled out rookie Javan Robinson, a Florida native who came to WSU as a top-100 CB recruit in the nation, per 247Sports.com.
“Javan Robinson has really impressed — his competitive nature, his want-to,” Dickert said Thursday. “That’s a guy that wants to get out there and play. He’ll be one throughout camp that’ll get a lot of reps and opportunities because of (Ford-Dement’s injury).”