If it’s hard to remember the last time Washington State began a football camp without a quarterback competition as the most compelling storyline, that’s because it hasn’t happened in earnest since the fall of 2017, when Pac-12 career passing leader Luke Falk returned for his fourth year as the Cougars’ starter.
The Cougars haven’t had a multiyear starter since Falk, but they may this fall if Jayden de Laura retains the job he won last October and held through the course of a truncated four-game 2020 season. Either way, the quarterback battle will once again be the predominant storyline when spring camp opens at 4 p.m. on Thursday in Pullman.
Spring workouts will actually open without de Laura, who’s still serving a suspension from football activities after his DUI arrest in February. Nick Rolovich didn’t offer any clues as to whether de Laura’s suspension would be lifted before the conclusion of spring camp, but the second-year coach indicated “I think in my head I have (made that decision).”
Rolovich added: “I’m anticipating I’ll continue to monitor that (situation).”
Nonetheless, De Laura’s indefinite absence from the team could open the door for his challengers — namely returning backup Cammon Cooper and Tennessee graduate transfer Jarrett Guarantano. One is a fourth-year junior who spelled de Laura in two games last year and has a basic understanding of Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense principles. The other is sixth-year senior who started in 41 SEC games, but he relinquished his job midway through the 2020 season, throwing six touchdowns and four interceptions.
True freshman Xavier Ward, a three-star prospect from Corona, California, enrolled in classes in January and will take part in spring drills with the Cougars but isn’t expected to be in the thick of the race for QB1 duties.
“This is a level of football where if you’re scared of competition, you’re probably not supposed to be here anyway,” Rolovich said. “So, we’ve got to play the best guy and win the most games, and that is the name of the game.”
The opportunities and reps won’t be scarce for the four QBs who will be practicing on Thursday and there won’t be a shortage of wide receivers in which to fire passes. WSU’s updated spring roster lists 19 receivers, including five new scholarship wideouts and walk-ons.
“We like to do production-based stuff,” Rolovich said. “Just want to make everyone gets a good amount of reps. I think there will be a lot of throws spread around the guys who are playing, or practicing. We’ll start at one place with the reps, but with the amount of people we have because of seniors coming back, it’s a good number for spring ball. So, you can do multiple huddles, we have plenty of space where you can have two groups going.
“I don’t think there will be any complaints about opportunity from any position the way we’ve got it lined up now.”
Whenever de Laura returns to the team, be it later this spring or in the fall, Rolovich expects him to do so with the perspective of someone who gained experience and maturity from his mistake. The time that the Saint Louis High graduate has spent away from the team has been productive and meaningful, by all accounts.
“I would say incredibly,” the coach said, asked how de Laura handled the aftermath of his off-field incident. “It’s not something that he’s proud of, the incident. It’s not something the program stands for, but what I told him is how he deals with this could define the rest of his career and I’m incredibly proud of his approach, taking the punishment and growing and maturing as a young man. That’s part of the job at this level. So far I’m pleased with his growth as a young man, in a lot of areas.”
Some of the names fans grew familiar with last fall are no longer listed on the updated WSU roster that was published Wednesday.
Among them? Lucas Bacon, a walk-on from Spokane who started in all four games last year at “X” receiver, catching five passes for 57 yards and one touchdown.
Aside from those who’ve already announced their plans to enter the transfer portal, scholarship players who weren’t listed on the new roster include defensive backs Pat Nunn and Damion Lee and offensive linemen Jimmy Price and Julian Ripley.
Other non-scholarship players no longer with the team include linebacker Hank Pladson, defensive back Lamar Campbell, wide receiver Riley Jenkins and linebacker Bruce Seton.
Meanwhile, the revised spring roster included an influx of new players, including three Power Five transfers: Guarantano (No. 18), former TCU linebacker Ben Wilson (No. 9) and ex-Michigan State defensive back Chris Jackson (No. 12).
The Cougars lost one walk-on from Spokane in Bacon, but added another: prolific running back Kannon Katzer. One of the most dominant players in the history of the Greater Spokane League, Katzer opted out of the 2020 season after his mom died in an ATV accident, but is joining the Cougars this fall.
Rolovich’s first spring camp as Washington State’s football coach was over before it could start.
More than 365 days later, with the COVID-19 pandemic on the decline, Rolovich and the Cougars will take the field on Thursday for the first of 15 spring practices at Rogers Field and Martin Stadium.
Practices will be open to media, but closed to the public. The annual Crimson & Gray game will take place on April 24 at 2 p.m. and air on the Pac-12 Networks. Pending guidance from campus, local and state health authorities, attendance and ticket information for the spring game will be announced at a later date.
The full spring practice schedule is as follows: April 1 (4 p.m.), April 2 (4 p.m.), April 3 (12:30 p.m.), April 6 (4 p.m.), April 8 (4 p.m.), April 10 (12:30 p.m.), April 13 (4 p.m.), April 15 (4 p.m.), April 17 (12:30 p.m.), April 20 (4 p.m.), April 22 (4 p.m.), April 23 (4 p.m.), April 24 (2 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), April 27 (4 p.m.) and April 29 (4 p.m.).
Due to NCAA rules, WSU will be in helmets and jerseys only for the first two practices of spring camp with fully-padded practices starting on April 6.