PULLMAN – In the ideal version of Washington State coach Nick Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense, pass-catching production is by committee.
“It’s not a system where one guy can kind of be put in the spotlight,” Rolovich said Wednesday after practice at Gesa Field.
Earlier this season, the Cougars had been somewhat predictable through the air. The bulk of throws went toward veterans Travell Harris and Calvin Jackson Jr.
The slotback duo’s efficiency has not dwindled, but other receivers are beginning to surface as reliable targets for the Cougars (3-3, 2-2 Pac-12).
“The receivers are playing their best football since we’ve been here,” the second-year coach said. “(They had) two really good days of practice – just high energy, high execution. I’m excited to see them play again.”
Two reserve slots had breakout days in WSU’s 31-24 win over Oregon State last Saturday in Pullman.
Facing third-and-two late in the third quarter, quarterback Jayden de Laura connected with sophomore Joey Hobert, who was cutting across the middle.
Hobert made a nifty hesitation move to freeze one defender. Fellow backup slot Lincoln Victor and outside receiver De’Zhaun Stribling threw lane-clearing blocks, and Hobert was off to the races for a 55-yard touchdown.
“Joey has got a real savviness about his spatial awareness,” Rolovich said. “I know the speed he showed was good, and Lincoln, I don’t know if you saw him zip down to get that block.”
Three Cougar plays later, Victor was rewarded with a screen reception in the red zone. WSU’s offensive linemen paved the way, and the flashy sophomore Hawaii transfer shimmied ahead from 14 yards out, diving past the goal line then springing up for a quick celebratory dance.
“It was good to see those two guys get their first touchdowns as Cougars,” Rolovich said. “I don’t think it’s an accident that they got some real production in that game.”
Victor and Hobert entered Saturday’s game with a combined 115 yards on 11 catches. Now they’re up to 213 yards on 18 grabs.
Harris had another of his many exceptional days as a Cougar, logging a career-high 147 yards on eight catches. He set up Victor’s score with a 58-yard catch and run. Jackson remained steady, totaling 70 yards on nine receptions.
WSU’s depth at the pass-catcher positions was a talking point in the preseason, and it’s starting to show.
The emergence of Hobert and Victor allows Rolovich to spell Harris, one of the Pac-12’s top kick returners.
“There’s a real unselfishness in that group,” Rolovich said. “If Travell needs (a break), those guys are on it. They self-substitute, basically. They understand that it’s beneficial to all of them, keeping them fresh.”
WSU dialed up a five-wide look and left de Laura alone in the backfield with some regularity last weekend – one of a handful of recent tweaks to the offense that Rolovich hoped would induce more big plays. Three slotbacks were on the field during those plays.
Six receivers registered multiple grabs each against OSU, and all of them recorded at least one reception that went for over 15 yards during WSU’s most explosive day of the Rolovich era.
Five had multiple catches apiece the week prior at Cal. The Cougars’ passing game did not distribute the touches as much in its three FBS games beforehand.
“We just weren’t connecting the way we were anticipating,” Rolovich said.
Six pass-catchers have scored touchdowns and six are either well above 100 yards receiving on the year or right at it – Victor is 5 yards shy of the mark.
No other Pac-12 passing offense seems to be divvying up the receiver touches as much as WSU, which is the only team in the conference with three receivers ranking in the league’s top 10 in total catches. Harris is third with 39, Jackson fourth with 35 and Stribling eighth with 22.
Those same Cougars have each eclipsed 250 yards receiving – Jackson has 404 yards, Harris 394 and Stribling 254. No other Pac-12 team features three players over 250 yards receiving.
“Throwing it up to a big body, then coming back to a smaller guy who has speed and can change the game in the blink of an eye, that hurts the opponent,” Harris said. “You don’t know what you’re going to get.”
Stribling has seen an uptick in his effectiveness over the past few weeks, but WSU is still awaiting a breakthrough from the other starter at outside receiver, sophomore Donovan Ollie (139 yards on 14 catches). Of WSU’s 1,554 receiving yards this season, 1,011 have come through the slots.
In the run-and-shoot, Rolovich said, the slots are traditionally responsible for most of the receptions.
Yet he thinks the starters on the outsides might benefit if a couple of their backups can develop into reliable options. The candidates include junior transfer CJ Moore – the former Oklahoma State wideout who has yet to log a catch – junior Mitchell Quinn, junior walk-on Anderson Grover and true freshman Tsion Nunnally.
“We probably gotta strive to get to be a little more of that way (rotational) on the outside,” Rolovich said. “They do a little bit more long running in plays, so that’s something we’re talking about this week.”