PULLMAN — There’s no telling whether Washington State’s football team will maintain its streak of consecutive bowl appearances this fall (in seasons played with more than four games, that is), but after 15 spring practices, one can be sure the Cougars will be a more polished product in 2021 than they would’ve been without a spring camp period — the brutal reality that coach Nick Rolovich’s program had to come to terms with last year.
“None of that looked like the fall to me,” Rolovich said. “I think they’ve done a nice job. I do think they plateaued offensively toward the end of spring, for various reasons probably, but I do think their effort and their want to be good — I think it’s very important to them, the journey they’re on as part of this football team.”
The most important part of that journey begins in August, when the Cougars regroup for fall camp and a full 12-game slate that opens Sept. 4 at home against Utah State, ideally in front of at least 10,000 to 15,000 fans at Martin Stadium.
For now, we rewind the short practice period that just wrapped up by offering five takeaways from Rolovich’s first spring camp as WSU’s coach.
1. QB still a quandary
The real competition begins in August, although that should hardly come as a surprise for anyone tracking WSU’s quarterback race.
Spring camp was never going to provide much clarity on who’d take the first snaps of the 2021 season, but there was a chance returning backup Cammon Cooper and Tennessee graduate transfer Jarrett Guarantano would gain a step on incumbent starter Jayden de Laura, who observed spring drills from windows inside the weight room as he missed all 15 practices due to a suspension.
De Laura may have some rust to shake off when he returns in August, but based on comments made by Rolovich after WSU’s final spring practice, the Honolulu native won’t be at a major disadvantage when fall camp opens.
Rolovich commended Cooper in Thursday’s post-practice interview, saying the redshirt junior “is way more comfortable in what we’re doing. I think he has some anticipation. I think he’s playing looser. I think he’s playing with more confidence.”
But when Rolovich was asked if he thought Cooper had separated from Guarantano, or vice versa, the second-year coach said it wasn’t a topic he’d spent much time pondering. Neither is good enough at this juncture.
“I don’t think the separation is the discussion right now, because I don’t think we’re good enough at that position,” Rolovich said. “So they need to continue to get better throughout the summer and into training camp.”
2. Safety isn’t settled
Traditionally, WSU’s issues in the secondary have come at cornerback, and the safety positions have churned out NFL players such as Deone Bucannon, Shalom Luani and Jalen Thompson.
In 2021 things may be reversed.
Jaylen Watson projects to be the star of WSU’s secondary, and fellow cornerback Derrick Langford may have turned in the best spring camp of any defensive player on the roster. George Hicks III, Chau Smith-Wade and Chris Jackson should pad one of the deepest cornerback groups the Cougars have had in a while.
Meanwhile, questions at safety loom.
The group experienced major attrition in the offseason, first when hard-hitting Tyrese Ross entered the transfer portal, eventually landing at South Carolina, and then when Ayden Hector, the most promising defensive freshman on the roster in 2020, was suspended for an off-field incident and left the team. Another returning starter, Daniel Isom, suffered an undisclosed injury midway through camp and returned only as a partial participant for the final practice, and redshirt senior Chad Davis Jr. missed the final four practices.
3. The MVPs were …
After the 14th spring practice, Deon McIntosh told reporters he was about five pounds from the playing weight (200 pounds) he hopes to sustain this fall. Meanwhile, the sixth-year senior seems nowhere close to reaching his potential as a college running back.
When Rolovich was asked to select offensive and defensive standouts from the monthlong spring camp period, he immediately landed on McIntosh as his top offensive choice.
“I would say Deon McIntosh would be in that conversation,” the coach said.
Max Borghi suffered a minor lower-body injury midway through spring camp, placing McIntosh into a role he grew familiar with last fall, when the tough, shifty tailback rushed for 323 yards and three touchdowns while Borghi nursed a back injury. McIntosh rushed five times for 38 yards in the spring game while totaling six carries for 60 yards in the other two scrimmages.
Rolovich also mentioned two offensive-line starters — right tackle Abe Lucas and center Brian Greene — as players who excelled during the spring camp.
Defensively, WSU’s coach highlighted Ron Stone Jr., who should be one of the team’s most productive edge rushers in the fall.
“I saw a rise in RJ Stone, who has an incredible personality that’s very magnetic,” Rolovich said. “ … He has the ability, just by his gift of personality, to be a tremendous influencer, leader on this team.”
4. Camaraderie is key
Rolovich and Co. eyed spring camp as an opportunity to improve camaraderie within WSU’s program — something that, like almost everything else in 2020, was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
So the Cougars made an effort to squeeze in as many team-bonding opportunities as they could during the nearly monthlong camp period, while still maintaining proper focus when helmets and shoulder pads came on.
In a belated Easter celebration, the Cougars hosted an egg hunt on the turf of Martin Stadium. Plastic eggs contained ticket numbers correlating to specific gifts. Some of those were WSU apparel, and other tickets gave players the right to pie a teammate on the opposite side of the ball, a position coach or Rolovich.
Rolovich pointed to “camaraderie” as the most important thing the Cougars gained during camp.
“I thought the competition was healthy yet at a high level,” Rolovich said. ” … There was a lot of fun in practice, there was a lot of I think light jawing where nobody took it personal, but it led to greater enjoyment and higher intensity when there was competition.”
5. Only so much can be gleaned
Spring camp serves a purpose, especially for a WSU team that didn’t get the benefit of 15 practices last year at the dawn of the pandemic.
But don’t draw too many conclusions from what you read about the Cougars this spring, what you heard from a friend, what you saw on a scrimmage stat sheet or what you observed on the television broadcast of the Crimson and Gray game.
The Cougars didn’t hold a practice with de Laura. Borghi sat out of the spring game and missed the second half of spring camp. Wide receiver Renard Bell, left tackle Liam Ryan and left guard Jarrett Kingston had injuries that kept them out of at least two or three practices, and defensive fixtures such as Isom and edge rushers Willie Taylor III and Brennan Jackson missed time. Defensive tackle Dallas Hobbs spent camp with strength coaches to rehab a foot injury.
Fall camp will offer a more complete picture of what the Cougars have in 2021, not only because many of the aforementioned players will be cleared to practice, but because the team will welcome another influx of newcomers. A handful enrolled early and participated in spring drills, but at least 15 more will arrive in the fall. Given the role true freshmen played last fall, it’s not unlikely two or three will find themselves on the depth chart come September.