PULLMAN — Who will be the starting quarterback for the Washington State football team?
Cougars coach Nick Rolovich said figuring that out is the top priority in the four weeks of practices leading to the season opener Sept. 4 against Utah State.
While most figured it was a three-man competition between returning starter Jayden de Laura, Tennessee graduate transfer Jarrett Guarantano, and fourth-year junior Cammon Cooper, Rolovich added another name to the competition: sophomore Victor Gabalis.
“If it came down to Victor, I think he could run the offense at a very high level,” said Rolovich, who after a week of practices said Gabalis might be having the best camp of any of the quarterbacks.
The four contenders say they are good friends, and it’s clear those aren’t empty words. You can see it’s true by their interactions. But only one will win the job.
So, who will it be?
De Laura, who seems more mature and confident after an up-and-down season as a true freshman starter last year?
Guarantano, a sixth-year senior who’s started 32 games at Tennessee?
Cooper, who had the best stats of the four contenders at the first Saturday?
Or Gabalis, who turned down offers at Army, Navy and Air Force to be a preferred walk-on at WSU?
Here is a closer look at the four contenders (in alphabetical order).
Cammon Cooper, redshirt junior
Rolovich had heavy praise for the “huge growth” Cooper has made since last season. The fourth-year junior showed that growth Saturday, completing 6 of 7 passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns.
Many wondered if Cooper would still be at WSU this fall after losing the quarterback battle to de Laura last year. The 6-foot-4, 208-pounder, who played in two games last season, acknowledged he considered transferring.
“It crossed my mind with the younger guy starting last year and a transfer (Guarantano) coming in,” said Cooper, who threw for 11,372 yards and 118 touchdowns at Lehi High School in Utah. “But I feel like at the end of last year, I was trending upward. I got some playing time and a feel for the offense. I wanted to stick it out and finish my degree as well.”
Cooper graduated with a degree in business finance this summer, and also found time to work on his golf game.
He and Max Borghi, along with other former and current Cougars, played often at Palouse Ridge in Pullman. Cooper, about a 4 handicap after playing just two years, hits the ball far — about 345 yards on an average drive, according to Borghi.
But Cooper’s focused on football now, and said he is much more comfortable in the offense this year.
His case to Rolovich to be the starting quarterback?
“I want to be able to tell him I give the team the best chance to win games,” he said. “I want to prove to him that I do, and I want to prove to the rest of team that they can trust me in tough situations and tough times to come through.”
Jayden de Laura, sophomore
De Laura emerged from a three-man battle for quarterback last season as a true freshman. He had the advantage of having played in the run-and-shoot offense at St. Louis High School in Honolulu, the same offense run by Rolovich.
De Laura completed 78 of 129 passes for 886 yards, with five touchdowns and four interceptions. But the stat that matters most is 1-3, the Cougars’ record last season. That didn’t sit well with de Laura, whose high school team was 23-0 his last two years.
“I would give myself a C or C-minus,” de Laura said of last season. “It was hard, coming from high school and not losing a game, then coming out here and finishing the season 1-3.”
De Laura was in the news for the wrong reasons in February, getting arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor DUI charges.
De Laura was suspended by the team and missed spring practices, but Rolovich said the starting quarterback position would have been open this year regardless. De Laura was found not guilty last month, but said he has changed.
“I feel like I’ve matured quickly, and my decision-making, on the field and off the field, is way better,” he said.
Teammates say they have noticed that.
Rolovich says de Laura “is more of a gunslinger who can make exciting plays.”
Rolovich said he likes that de Laura has the athletic ability to go off-script, but he wants the young quarterback to understand that throwing the ball away can be a good play.
De Laura said his ceiling is much higher this year, and better decision-making has been his focus.
“I sat out all spring, I know I missed a lot, but I came in with a different mindset,” de Laura said. “It’s straight business for me now. It’s not just a game for me now. It’s like a job and I am really taking it serious.”
Victor Gabalis, sophomore
Gabalis started for three seasons at quarterback for powerful Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett, often not throwing much in his last two seasons.
Gabalis caught the attention of Rolovich when he was coaching at Hawaii.
Gabalis went on an official visit to Hawaii and was ready to commit, but Rolovich then left for Washington State. Gabalis still had offers from Air Force, Army and Navy, but chose to be a preferred walk-on at WSU.
“It was something I really prayed upon — somehow I ended up here and it felt right,” Gabalis said. “I think I am in the best place. I like being the underdog: Work hard and see what happens.”
Gabalis said his confidence has risen greatly, and credits Guarantano with helping him.
“When Jarrett came, it was great for me because it was like a big brother I could look up to, a guy with a lot of experience,” Gabalis said. “We’ve watched film and he really helped me understand defense and coverages.”
Gabalis’ mission is clear: “My goal is to become the starter and earn a scholarship. That would make it easier for me and my family.”
Jarrett Guarantano, graduate transfer
Guarantano was one of the top-ranked dual-threat quarterbacks in the country coming out of Bergen Catholic High School in Oradell, N.J., and big things were expected at Tennessee.
He started 32 games for the Volunteers over the past four seasons, completing 494 of 808 passes for 6,174 yards and 38 touchdowns with 17 interceptions.
Tennessee did not have a lot of success, with a record of 20-27 the past four years, and Guarantano got death threats from angry fans.
He was ready for a fresh start, and is getting that in Pullman.
“I liked the culture, I’ve liked what they’ve done in the past to get wide receivers the ball,” said Guarantano, whose father, James, set the career receptions mark at Rutgers. “The coaching staff was a big factor — they all recruited me pretty hard. They showed me the offense and the different things that they do and I thought it fit me pretty well.”
Rolovich said Guarantano’s years of experience at Tennessee are evident. Guarantano said that experience, the good and the bad, will help him.
“It shows you more about life, the ups and downs, the adversity you hit, and the great moments that can come from adversity and how sweet it can be,” he said. “I learned a lot. Obviously, there was some good and bad on the field, but it’s what God intended and I am perfectly fine with my past and I think it’s definitely helped with my future.”
His case to be the starting quarterback?
“When you see me operate, there are good things that happen with the offense,” he said.