PULLMAN — When Donovan Ollie was asked to describe himself earlier this week in a postpractice Zoom call, the Washington State wide receiver was soft-spoken, short-winded and right to the point.
“A humble dude who likes to work hard,” Ollie responded in a modest Southern drawl that followed him all the way from Wylie, Texas, to Pullman two years ago.
That’s one way to describe Ollie.
Another? The player who, after five practices, seems to have the inside track on replacing Jamire Calvin and making key catches for the Cougars this fall at the “Z” outside receiving position. It’s been a quick climb for Ollie, who made his college debut last season but wasn’t even listed as a primary backup at any of the four receiver positions.
When Calvin, the team’s starting “Z” in 2020, announced on Feb. 12 he’d be entering the NCAA transfer portal, it created an opening at one of the four coveted receiver positions within Nick Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense.
An opening, surely, and for Ollie, an opportunity.
“It’s been just two years working hard, learning from our past receiving corps,” Ollie said. “So it’s been a long time coming, it feels like, but it feels good. We’re all working.”
A redshirt sophomore, Ollie made three appearances last fall, catching a 15-yard pass – the first of his career – in WSU’s season-ending loss at Utah. Practice catches are just that, but Ollie’s submitted more than a few highlight-reel plays through the first five practices and his newfound spot on the depth chart is the direct result.
That trend didn’t stop Thursday.
During a one-on-one drill pitting receivers against defensive backs, Ollie made a quick move at the line of scrimmage to gain a step on transfer cornerback Chris Jackson. After tangling with his defender, Ollie broke loose and caught a bullet from quarterback Jarrett Guarantano that sailed just over Jackson’s hands and right into the chest of a leaping Ollie.
On another play, he outraced a defender down the sideline. On another, he used his long arms to reel a fingertip catch that drew rounds of applause from the crowd of red offensive jerseys nearby.
Although Ollie never cracked the two-deep as a redshirt freshman, Rolovich said he began to emerge midway through the 2020 season. If the Cougars released a way-too-early two-deep Friday, his name would not only appear, but appear in a prominent spot as WSU’s front-runner at “Z” receiver.
At 6-foot-3, 209 pounds, Ollie is substantially bigger than the 5-10, 160-pound Calvin, but his size doesn’t necessarily hinder his athleticism.
The Cougars may also be getting bigger at the other outside receiver spot, where 6-4 ex-Oklahoma State receiver CJ Moore was getting No. 1 reps on Thursday.
The 6-2 Lucas Bacon and 5-10 Calvin Jackson Jr. were WSU’s top two options at “X” receiver last season.
“Donovan really started making some strides late in the season,” Rolovich said after Saturday’s practice. “I probably say this too much, but this team has a lot of good people on it and Donovan’s one of them.
“He’s a bigger receiver, but I think he’s in good playing weight right now and has some confidence in the scheme.
If Ollie earns the starting “Z” position this fall, he’d have a chance to hang onto it for four years. He still has four years of eligibility remaining due to COVID-19 rules.
“You don’t realize, he’s still a young player,” Rolovich said. “He’s been a couple years now, but I think his improvement from probably middle of the season till now I think is a good jump and if he continues on that, he’s going to be a good player for us.”
Ollie said he’s spent the past two years adjusting to the speed of the game at the Pac-12 level and nailing down the concepts of the offensive playbook – or playbooks. There have been two for Ollie, who signed with the Cougars under the last regime and may have been getting the hang of the Air Raid by the time Mike Leach left for Mississippi State and Rolovich entered the fray with his run-and-shoot.
“Mainly just mentally, getting used to the game,” Ollie said of how he approached the last two years.
“It’s not high school anymore, getting used to the speed, the playing style and the plays. That’s pretty much it, honestly.”
He also credited the tutelage of a few fellow outside receivers, namely Dezmon Patmon, a 2020 NFL draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts, and Easop Winston Jr., who signed a free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Rams after his senior year with the Cougars.
“I’ve got to give a shout-out to my dude Easop, my guy Dez Patmon,” Ollie said. “They taught me a lot. Coming in it was kind of hard for me, but they brought me up, so it’s all good. Shout out to them boys.”
Two years later, he may be the one filling their shoes.