LOS ANGELES — At this time a year ago, the mood surrounding Washington State’s football program was much less upbeat.
Coach Nick Rolovich couldn’t attend the Pac-12’s media day in person because he had elected to not receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Questions regarding WSU’s athletes and on-field expectations were overshadowed by Rolovich’s vaccination status and the reasoning behind his decision to decline the jab — a decision that eventually cost him his job.
In October, the Cougars turned to defensive coordinator Jake Dickert, who quickly won over the WSU fan base and guided the team to a spirited finish while serving as interim coach. He earned the gig for good in late November after the Cougars clubbed Washington for a streak-ending Apple Cup victory.
During the 2022 edition of the Pac-12’s media day, staged Friday at The Novo Theater in downtown L.A., the story lines surrounding the Cougs were far more favorable than last summer.
To be sure, Dickert’s media-day debut was overshadowed by the topic on everyone’s minds: conference realignment and the fate of the Pac-12 with USC and UCLA on the way out.
But the Cougars’ boss made sure to carve out enough time to shine a light on his team and provide encouraging remarks for the WSU faithful as his first true season at the helm draws near.
“When you talk about Washington State, we’re sometimes talked about in the background,” Dickert told The Spokesman-Review shortly before he took the main stage and spoke in front of a few dozen reporters. “We’ve got a team that’s hungry. We’ve got a team that’s ready to get out there and prove who they are, especially on the offensive side.”
The Cougars’ new Air Raid offense — the “Coug Raid,” they’re calling it — features a first-year offensive coordinator and a highly touted transfer quarterback from the FCS ranks. Dickert is eager for Pac-12 enthusiasts to see OC Eric Morris and sophomore QB Cameron Ward in action.
“We’ve got one of the best young offensive coordinators in the country and I think we’ve got one of the best up-and-coming quarterbacks,” Dickert said of the two former Incarnate Word Cardinals.
Morris served as UIW’s head coach over the past four seasons and Ward, who accompanied Dickert and edge Ron Stone Jr. on Friday, broke records as the Cardinals’ star signal caller over the past two years. Ward followed Morris to Pullman this offseason and almost immediately captured the Cougs’ QB job.
“(Pac-12 fans) don’t really know much about me,” said Ward, who was left off the media’s preseason all-conference teams. “The less people know, the better. I like that. It motivates me.”
WSU introduced tight ends this offseason and underwent significant turnover on the offensive line and at running back. So, those positions may be works in progress. But the Cougs are especially deep and talented at the receiver spots.
“I think we’re going to have a great offense this year,” Ward added. “And our defense is going to get turnovers and keep the ball in our hands.”
The Cougars enjoyed a defensive resurgence last year and finished the season tied for fifth nationally in turnovers gained (29). The unit, headlined by Stone — the exuberant first-team All-Pac-12 pick — shouldn’t take a step back this year under first-year defensive coordinator Brian Ward, the former Nevada DC who shares coaching philosophies with Dickert.
“With the consistency on defense, we’re getting back to where we left off last year,” Dickert said.
WSU overhauled its staff between the end of last season and earlier this month, adding 22 members — several on-field, several in supporting roles — to the fold.
Dickert is calling his program the “New Wazzu.” Asked to outline program pillars and define WSU’s culture, he said: “I’m a big believer in accountability and player-driven teams, not player-run teams.”
Stone commended Dickert and his coaching style.
“I’m just really glad he’s the guy in charge,” Stone said. “I wouldn’t want anyone else to lead us. Coach Dickert has done a fantastic job of not only trusting himself but leaning on the leadership we have in the building already. I think that’s really important.”
Despite its midseason turmoil last year, WSU made a late push under Dickert before falling just one game short of an appearance in the Pac-12 championship. Still, the Cougs came in at seventh in the media’s 2022 preseason poll.
“I feel like that’s one of the calling cards of Washington State — we’re going to be an undervalued team,” Stone said. “That’s what we pride ourselves on, being the blue-collar team that’s going to outwork our opponents.”
WSU fall camp kicks off at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday at Rogers Field.
Cougs talk conference realignment
Dickert stayed optimistic and offered levelheaded responses when asked for his thoughts about USC and UCLA’s defections.
“My message is that change is inevitable,” he said. “Everybody wants progress but nobody wants change. Change is happening all around us. I think we’ve got great leadership at Washington State and in the Pac-12. We have solution-based leaders, and that’s what it takes. We still have valuable assets. I’m excited about the future of the Pac-12. There will be new traditions, new rivalries, new places to play as we continue to expand. Let’s embrace change.”
Many are fearing for the Pac-12’s survival in the wake of the L.A. schools’ decision to hop ship to the Big Ten in 2024. Dickert believes the conference — and college football, in general — will make it out all right.
“Make no mistake about it: The Pac-12 is going to be here for a long time in a power conference, playing big-time football,” he said. “College football and the pureness of the game I think will always be there. We all have to fight to preserve that.”
Stone said he was shocked by the news initially, but he’s not worried about the Pac-12’s prospects.
“The Pac-12 is still a competitive conference without USC and UCLA,” he said.