PULLMAN — Washington State’s edge rushers dazzled throughout the preseason and excelled in the Cougars’ season opener.
The position group has already distinguished itself as perhaps the strongest facet of WSU’s team.
But over the past four weeks, the Cougar “edges” haven’t played at full strength.
Ron Stone Jr., a WSU captain and a first-team All-Pac-12 performer last season, participated in a limited capacity during fall camp and played sparingly in WSU’s Week 1 win over Idaho. WSU coaches held Stone back, allowing him to recover properly from an unspecified injury sustained this summer.
Now, the Cougars are ready to remove Stone’s governor and turn him loose. WSU’s “edges” are finally playing at full power, and the timing couldn’t have been much better.
The Cougars need maximum effort from their edge rushers — and defensive front, in general — to have a chance this weekend against No. 19 Wisconsin and its powerful ground game. Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
Stone is looking forward to an increased workload after playing just 26 of 66 defensive snaps in the Cougars’ 24-17 victory over the Vandals on Saturday.
“Football’s not fun if you can’t play, so I think it was a smart decision we made, and we made it for my benefit,” he said Tuesday. “I’m excited to get out there with no limit and just be able to go back to playing as many reps as I usually do.”
The highly touted junior — a watch-list player for multiple national awards — logged a sack and a tackle at the line of scrimmage on Idaho’s first series, then spent much of the evening out of the lineup, spectating from the sideline and offering guidance for his young replacements.
“We had a certain target of snaps we wanted (Stone) to hit,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “We’ve been in constant communication with RJ and his family. This was best for RJ and his progression. … Now, we’ve gotten over this hump.”
The Cougar edge rushers still impressed when Stone wasn’t on the field. Five other “edges” found success in a steady rotation — which included standout Brennan Jackson, along with reserves Andrew Edson, Quinn Roff, Lawrence Falatea and Raam Stevenson.
Overall, the edges combined for 14 tackles, five TFLs, three sacks and four QB hurries.
“It was an opportunity for those younger guys,” Stone said. “They attacked it and I’m excited for them. Me taking less reps gives more reps to someone else in that position who is going to get more experience and ultimately help this team.
“If you’re not excited for your teammates, you are a bad teammate.”
Stevenson and Falatea worked their way into playing roles this preseason after redshirting in 2021.
“You always get those first-play jitters, but once you get into the game, it’s the game you’ve been playing your whole life,” Stevenson said Wednesday. “We’re a competitive group, obviously, so we’re always pushing each other, but we’re also lifting each other up.”
WSU will bring a healthier roster into its Week 2 matchup, according to Dickert.
The Cougars played without backup left tackle Fa’alili Fa’amoe and rotational tight end Andre Dollar last weekend. Both will be “ready to go” on Saturday, Dickert said.
Backup running back Djouvensky Schlenbaker is expected to contribute this season — he took significant reps with WSU’s first-team offense this preseason — but the true freshman didn’t make an appearance in Week 1.
The Cougs leaned on first-year starter Nakia Watson and sent out true freshman reserve Jaylen Jenkins on occasion.
Dickert acknowledged that Schlenbaker is working through a minor injury.
“There will be a role for Djouvensky as we go throughout the season,” he said.
Robert Ferrel, a senior slotback who transferred to WSU this summer out of Incarnate Word, has been sidelined with a foot injury since the start of the preseason. He’s nearing a return.
“Hopefully, Rob is a week away,” Dickert said. “He’s now on land, moving around. … We’ll hopefully get him back out there for Colorado State (Sept. 17).”
Free safety Jaden Hicks and strong safety Adrian Shepherd should see more playing time this weekend. Both sustained minor injuries last month and were limited last weekend.
Sam Lockett III played the majority of snaps at free safety and Jordan Lee held down duties at strong safety all evening.
“Jaden was a little hobbled coming into the week. He had an amazing first scrimmage, then a tough 10-day stretch,” Dickert said. “Now, we feel we got him over the hump. He and Sam will be out there, continually battling it out. Sam in Game 1 took maybe 2-to-1 reps, but I think that’ll be 50-50 (normally).”
Asked about Shepherd, Dickert said: “After that first scrimmage (Aug. 14), we just kinda had some deals where we couldn’t get him back to full strength. We felt, with the tempo of the game, that J-Lee could really handle all the reps.”