Even with a national pandemic wedged between football seasons, most Washington State fans could still summon memories of the 2019 campaign and recite the moments that shaped Mike Leach’s eight and final year with the Cougars.
Many will evoke a grin: Anthony Gordon’s Pac-12-record 48 touchdowns, 5,579 passing yards and 493 completions; a breakout season in the slot for ex-walk on Brandon Arconado; Max Borghi’s fourth-quarter end zone plunge against Oregon State, cementing six wins and bowl eligibility for the fifth straight season.
But, memory lane can also be a murky place and the Cougars did finish 6-7, so not all moments are worth revisiting: 50 second-half points conceded to UCLA, negating Gordon’s 10-touchdown effort in a 67-63 loss; a bizarre end to the brief marriage between WSU and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys; a catastrophe in Phoenix at the Cheez-It Bowl, where Air Force won a brutal game of keep-away, holding the ball for 43 minutes in a 28-15 Cougar loss.
Good thing players maintain shorter memories than fans.
“We’re going to get stops, we’re going to cause turnovers and, to be quite frank, we’re going to shut teams down this year,” senior cornerback George Hicks III told reporters Sunday, assuring the school’s fan base last year was a pure anomaly. “It is what it is, I’m going to be straightforward about it. There’s no sugarcoating it. We’re setting a new standard.
“Last year’s last year, that’s behind us. We’re setting a new standard, we’re coming with a new scheme and we’re going to shut people down. Straightforward.”
When a reporter followed up, asking “So I’m guessing you like the new scheme?” Hicks cracked a smile.
“Yeah,” he responded.
The lockdown defense Hicks is promising would be a nice gift to WSU fans – not to mention WSU’s offense – but, given the circumstances of a shortened season, the lack of a spring camp, an entirely new defensive staff/scheme, the crimson faithful may be willing to meet the cornerback somewhere in the middle, between the lofty heights he’s guaranteed, and the plateaus the Cougars reached last season.
In 2019, they allowed 31.4 points per game and 452.5 yards per game. Neither of those were conference-low marks, but the 185.5 rushing yards per game they conceded were, and at one point in the season, the Pac-12’s Offensive Player of the Week came at the Cougars’ expense three weeks in a row.
The Cougars return a handful of players who started on, or contributed, to last year’s team, but the overhaul on defense makes it hard to tell where the unit will make its biggest strides this fall – especially this early in the process.
“It’s a completely new defense, so it’s hard to tell,” “Edge” Ron Stone Jr. said following Saturday’s practice. “I think we’re just all going to have to buckle down and learn the scheme, live by the scheme and basically everyone do their job and be accountable. And we’re just going to be successful that way.”
Even tucked into what might seem at first glance a generic football response, there’s some real substance in Stone’s words. Last season, Leach chastised members of the defense – not by name, necessarily – for failing to “do their job.” WSU’s biggest breakdowns were occasionally the result of one or multiple players sliding away from their quadrant of the field to help a teammate, leaving big pockets of space. Chunk plays of 20, 30, 40 or 50 yards consistently doomed the Cougars on the scoreboard, and did no favors for the offense, which seldom got extended breathers on the sideline.
The defense Wyoming ran last season under new defensive coordinator Jake Dickert was disciplined – something that shone through in the success of a team that finished 8-5, but also on the stat sheet, where the Cowboys were superior to most of their Mountain West opponents.
“They have a great defense coming in,” senior left tackle Liam Ryan said. “I don’t know if you’ve looked at Wyoming’s stats the last couple years, but they’ve been a damn good defense.”
Still, some who followed along last year – maybe a few media pundits, as well – may be skeptical the Cougars can turn things around in an instant.
“The outside noise is the outside noise for a reason,” Stone said. “We’re the people that matter in this building. If you’re not in the building, your opinion’s not very relevant. So, we’re going to do our job.”
The redshirt sophomore from California did indicate the infusion of new defensive coaches and concepts has lifted the unit’s spirits.
“It’s new staff, new culture and that’s the thing we’re trying to drive right now,” Stone said. “Out with the old, in with the new, and kind of just bringing in our plan. ‘Code Cougs’ and we’re trying to live by that and have that approach for this whole season. I’m looking forward to it, I think we’re going to do a lot of good things.”
“Code Cougs” is the slogan the Cougars have decided to rally around in the Dickert regime. Redshirt junior nickel Armani Marsh, a Spokane native and Gonzaga Prep grad, explained the origins, and meaning, of the catchphrase after Monday’s practice.
“That’s just something coach D expresses to us as a defense and it’s all about basically playing hard, fast and physical, and playing together as a unit,” Marsh said. “There’s not just one player, it’s all of us and in order to achieve the goals we want to achieve, we’ve got to play together as a unit.”
8 for Kobe
Marsh, the former walk-on who was put on scholarship last season, changed his number from 35 to 8 this offseason.
The WSU nickel said the swap was mostly an ode to Kobe Bryant, the former Los Angeles Lakers guard who died in a helicopter accident earlier this year with his daughter, Gianna. Bryant wore No. 8 with the Lakers before switching to No. 24 midway through his career.
“I’m a big Kobe Bryant fan, so No. 8, I wanted to do that for him,” Marsh said. “Rest in peace.”
A few other things went into the decision, though. Marsh explained he wanted a fresh start with WSU’s new defensive staff and ditching his No. 35 was a metaphor for leaving behind the (mostly ugly) memories of 2019.
“And also, one thing I thought about before I switched was, 3 plus 5 equals 8,” Marsh said. “So, that was really the only number I’d switch to if I switched from 35.”
After WSU’s opening practice, Rolovich said the team had multiple players opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19, but the coach wasn’t sure if he could reveal names of those who wouldn’t be suiting up this fall.
Rolovich then said Saturday he hadn’t looked into it yet, and when pressed again Monday, suggested “we can take a pause on asking those questions.”
It’s not clear, and may not be clear until WSU’s first game, which players are foregoing the season for COVID-19 reasons. For health and safety reasons, reporters won’t be permitted at practice during preseason camp.
“I don’t really want to talk about that,” Rolovich said. “I’d rather talk about the guys who are here, to be honest with you. We can take a pause on asking those questions. … There’s some strategy to it, too. There’s some psychological warfare going on.”
Given the Cougars missed out on spring camp, and have held mostly virtual meetings since Rolovich was hired, the coach is looking for ways to get to know his players.
That, and giving the Cougars an opportunity to pay homage to their football upbringing, was the coach’s rational for encouraging players to paste sticker logos of their high school programs onto their helmets during preseason camp.
“It helps me in a time where I didn’t really get to know these guys in person very much until walkthroughs started,” Rolovich said. “I think everyone’s very proud of their journey to get to this point and I’ve done that before at Hawaii where guys would put their high school logos on their practice helmet.”
The helmet sticker experiment has already helped Rolovich expand his knowledge of the team he didn’t start coaching, in earnest, until Friday’s practice. Receivers Jamire Calvin and Renard Bell, along with nickel Halid Djibril, all attended Los Angeles’ Cathedral High School, and have donned the Phantoms’ logo on their helmet the first four days of camp.
“I didn’t realize we had three of them from the same high school,” Rolovich said. “It serves a bunch of purposes and it helps the relationship, I think, between the team, too.”