PULLMAN — One of them observes quietly and speaks softly. The other has a booming voice, and employs it often.
Washington State’s football team is beginning to get familiar with its two new assistant coaches — run-and-shoot veterans Dan Morrison (quarterbacks) and Dennis McKnight (offensive line), both of whom were hired last week after coach Nick Rolovich and four Cougars assistants lost their jobs for failing to comply with Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Both the boisterous McKnight and the more subdued Morrison were cleared for employment Friday by the university. They helped out where they could during WSU’s 21-19 loss to BYU on Saturday, and they started to work hands-on with the Cougars this week.
Interim coach Jake Dickert is picking up on the coaching characteristics that distinguish the two.
Morrison might be described as a quarterback whisperer. McKnight has offensive lineman written all over him.
“Coach Morrison, he’s very methodical,” Dickert said Wednesday. “He’s not a big yeller or screamer. He’s a (coach who will) bring you in close, ‘Hey, let’s talk about what you’re seeing, what you’re reading. Here’s what I saw.’
“He really wants the input from (quarterback) Jayden (de Laura). … He’s just very much a teacher of the game and a believer in people.”
WSU’s former quarterbacks coach, Craig Stutzmann, was one of the five Cougar coaches terminated Oct. 18 for failing to comply with a state COVID-19 vaccination mandate.
Morrison has 16 years of experience teaching run-and-shoot QBs. He worked under June Jones, one of the system’s pioneering figures, at Hawaii and SMU from 1999 to 2014. Morrison was Rolovich’s position coach at Hawaii in the early 2000s.
“He doesn’t really say too much, but when he says a lot, it means a lot,” said de Laura, whose uncle — Mel de Laura — coached alongside Morrison for several years.
McKnight is a quintessential O-line coach, a brick of a man who wore an intense look and was the only WSU coach to go without a jacket while the Cougars warmed up in the bitter breeze and light rainfall ahead of the BYU game.
The former 11-year NFL guard is an “energy starter,” Dickert said.
“He’s got a big, barrel-chested loud voice — big roar. His passion shows. He’s your classic O-line coach who loves the game,” Dickert said of McKnight, who has a decade of experience in that role and has spent a handful of seasons teaching big men in the run-and-shoot offense. “You can hear Coach McKnight from miles away. I love his energy and I think he’s been really good for our football team.”
WSU O-line coach Mark Weber also was fired Oct. 18.
Dickert has made it clear that the new assistants were not added to replace Rolovich and the departed staffers, but rather to help ease the Cougars through the coaching shake-up and provide stability for the remainder of the season.
“We don’t need a bunch of change here in the last four weeks of the season,” Dickert said.
Morrison and McKnight will offer valuable run-and-shoot insights for the players and coaches — “maybe a new way to look at some things,” Dickert said.
“I think our guys have really accepted (that),” he said. “I think you’re a lifelong learner in whatever you do, so even our older guys are seeing a different perspective.”
Together, they will also relieve much of the burden that was placed on offensive coordinator Brian Smith, a longtime run-and-shooter who readopted play-calling duties on the fly and essentially coached three position groups throughout last week’s slate of practices.
“He had a lot of weight on his shoulders, but I think he was excited to show who he is, what he can do, what his plan was, and I thought, for the most part, we executed really well on Saturday,” Dickert said. “You gotta remember that they were going through a lot — different people in the box, different people upstairs. He was downstairs (Smith had been in the box earlier this season). We lost our signal person. There’s a lot of things behind the scenes, but I thought he handled it really well.”
Although Morrison and McKnight know this offensive system well, there will be a learning period as they get accustomed to the Cougars’ methods of teaching. Dickert offered an example.
“My background is in Tampa 2 (a defensive scheme), but just because I go work for another person in the Tampa 2 … it’s not always going to be the same verbiage and language, and teaching progressions,” he said.
Cougars talk new-look defensive staff
WSU elevated defensive analyst Jordan Malone into the cornerbacks job, which was left vacant when the school parted ways with John Richardson on Oct. 18.
Chau Smith-Wade said the Cougar corners have stayed consistent in their demeanor.
“The room is still active. We still have a close bond. We’re just ready to move ahead,” the sophomore said when asked about Malone, a former defensive coordinator/DBs coach at Division II Augustana University in South Dakota.
“Coach Malone was in the room with Coach Rich, so we already had a relationship with him. … We’re starting to get a vibe for the new staff, the changes. We’re getting used to everything and everything is starting to move back to how it was, with the energy.”
Edge coach A.J. Cooper’s responsibilities expanded last week after defensive tackles coach Ricky Logo was terminated. Cooper, who had spent the past 11 years mentoring defensive ends at Wyoming and North Dakota State, is now in charge of all defensive linemen.
“I know with (the D-tackles), switching coaches is hard, but (Cooper) has done a fantastic job keeping the normalcy, the routine and not trying to change too much, and standing on the foundation that was left by Coach Logo,” edge Brennan Jackson said. “It’s been very normal in practice. He’s done a great job balancing out the time. For us, it hasn’t changed much, but I can definitely see he’s working overtime.”
The Cougars have quickly refocused and established a regular routine at practices, Jackson said, crediting Dickert and the remaining assistants for “putting in the extra hours to make sure this week goes by as seamless as possible.”