PULLMAN – Jayden de Laura lifted Washington State, then left the program, joined a Pac-12 foe and became one of the more polarizing figures in WSU football history. Ahead of a matchup against their ex-quarterback, the Cougars say there are no hard feelings.
“I’ve always been really impressed with what Jayden can do, and I appreciate everything he’s done for us,” first-year WSU coach Jake Dickert said earlier this week of Arizona’s quarterback. “I think one of those things that is important is: Sometimes, change is good for everybody. That’s what this situation is about.”
There’s sure to be an added level of motivation on both sidelines when WSU (6-4, 3-4 Pac-12) visits the desert for a much-anticipated game at 11 a.m. Saturday against de Laura’s Wildcats (4-6, 2-5).
After leading an upset victory over No. 9 UCLA last weekend, de Laura was asked about the significance of facing his former team. De Laura, known for his fiery personality, caused a stir with his response. He called the game “personal” and told viewers to “just watch.”
“I’m aware of (the comments), but our focus is on what we need to do to get better, period,” Dickert said. “Anything else is a distraction to the mission.
“I’m not a big believer in external motivators. … We’re not playing one individual. We’re playing an Arizona team that is much-improved.”
De Laura is at the top of the scouting report. The dual-threat sophomore is second in the Pac-12 in passing and seventh nationally with 3,128 yards. De Laura has thrown 24 touchdowns against eight interceptions on a 63.4% rate. A team captain and charismatic leader – which showed up in a big way for WSU last year – de Laura has been the key to the Wildcats’ uptick in success this year after a one-win 2021 season.
Recapping the de Laura saga at WSU
Recruited by former coach Mike Leach, de Laura opted to stick with WSU after Leach departed for Mississippi State. The Cougars hired Nick Rolovich out of Hawaii in early 2020.
The two quickly formed a bond at WSU. De Laura won the starting job as a true freshman and performed to mixed results during the Cougars’ four-game, COVID-affected 2020 season. Still, it appeared as if he’d be WSU’s QB of the future.
After missing spring camp while serving a suspension for an offseason DUI, of which he was later acquitted, de Laura lost a QB battle in fall camp 2021. Rolovich said de Laura had to work on his maturity, so the coach started Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano.
But Guarantano went down with an injury early in a Week 1 game against Utah State. De Laura was impressive in relief and never relinquished the role.
Less than two months later, Rolovich and four WSU staffers were terminated for failing to comply with a state COVID-19 vaccine mandate. De Laura had lost his mentor, but he released a statement shortly afterward, calling on the WSU fan base to unite and support the team in the wake of the coaching shake-up.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” de Laura said Tuesday told local media members Tuesday when asked of his reaction to Rolovich’s firing.
Dickert took the helm as interim coach and put confidence in de Laura, later tabbing him the “catalyst” to WSU’s strong finish on offense.
“It helped me grow as a leader,” de Laura said of the 2021 season. “It was kind of just gaining the trust of everybody on that team. We had to finish the season out for each other and it kind of made us close. To this day, I still have bonds with all of those teammates.
“I’d say it was difficult, but we got through it. We got through it, for sure.”
He rallied the team to a winning season – headlined by an unforgettable Apple Cup rout of Washington at Husky Stadium. De Laura planted the Ol’ Crimson flag at midfield after the 40-13 victory, solidifying himself as an important piece of WSU lore.
“It’s not how I pictured it (ending),” de Laura said of his WSU career, “but I’d say the win versus Washington was a really good win for the community at Washington State, the seniors, the older guys, because that game holds big value to all of them.”
The Cougars were picked to play in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31. De Laura arrived in El Paso, Texas, a few days after his teammates. His post-Christmas travel plans were delayed by weather.
De Laura felt steady pressure and took several hits behind a patchwork offensive line in the first half. After halftime, WSU plugged in Victor Gabalis at QB. De Laura emerged from the locker room in street clothes partway through the third quarter.
“I went in and got an X-ray on my ankle,” de Laura said this week of the Sun Bowl, “and knew I wasn’t able to play, so me and the trainers kind of agreed to just sit the rest of the game out.”
Less than an hour after the game, Incarnate Word quarterback Cameron Ward announced he had received an offer from WSU – the Cougars had already hired UIW head coach Eric Morris to be their offensive coordinator in 2022, and it was clear they were recruiting the star Cardinal QB to tag along.
Speculation regarding de Laura’s abrupt Sun Bowl exit swirled in Coug circles. But a couple of weeks after WSU’s 24-21 loss to Central Michigan, Dickert reaffirmed that de Laura had suffered an injury.
“I’d really like to put all that to bed,” Dickert said Jan. 11 when asked whether de Laura and WSU had a falling-out. “There’s been no situation that’s happened and I just wish Jayden the best.”
De Laura entered the NCAA transfer portal Jan. 7. Three days later, Ward committed to WSU. That same evening, de Laura pledged to Arizona.
De Laura finished his Cougars career with 3,684 passing yards, 28 touchdowns and 13 interceptions on a 62.5% completion rate across 16 appearances. He guided eight wins. De Laura claimed the 2021 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year award, then signed on with Arizona as a prized recruit.
“This offseason, I was kind of looking for the opportunity to play (WSU),” de Laura said, “and the opportunity presents itself this upcoming week.”
After offering praise for the Cougars’ defense, de Laura was asked about potential trash talk on Saturday.
“No, no,” he said. “It’s going to be fun, though. I know we’re going to be saying stuff to each other, but it’s all within the game.”
What they’re saying
For both programs, it’s the same message: Keep the emotions in check.
Dickert addressed de Laura’s comments during a team meeting this week, according to tailback Nakia Watson.
“We’re not going to really feed into what one person says,” Watson said.
“It all started with coach Dickert. He was like, ‘Yeah, (de Laura) said that, but we have something bigger than just that. We have bigger goals to achieve than just trying to target what one person is saying.’ That’s kind of how we keep that balance.”
Fisch has leaned on de Laura’s arm throughout the year. The second-year coach is reminding his first-year QB to stay composed in Arizona’s pursuit of a postseason berth.
“As you all know, I believe in Jayden de Laura very much,” Fisch said. “I think he has a great skill set. If he can just play within himself and not let the opponent affect him, and treat them like they’re nameless and faceless, in a lot of ways that’ll help him and all of us.”