Washington State won’t skate through the 2018 football season without seeing a Heisman Trophy contender, and it’s possible the Cougars could face as many as three of them before week 12. Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, Stanford running back Bryce Love and Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate are a few of the biggest names on WSU’s schedule, but they aren’t the only ones.
We take a look at those three and nine other players – one from each team on the 2018 slate – that could make life challenging for WSU this year.
Wyoming – Andrew Wingard, safety: The long-haired, hard-hitting defensive back will be a daunting challenge for whichever WSU quarterback is taking the snaps in the season opener. Wingard needs only 100 tackles as a senior to become the Cowboys’ career leader and that doesn’t seem unreachable for someone who’s averaged 122 per season at Wyoming. A preseason All-American candidate, Wingard is also the Mountain West’s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
San Jose State – Tyler Nevens, running back: San Jose State’s passing game is still a work in progress, so the Spartans probably need big numbers on the ground from their primary tailback if they hope to keep pace with the WSU Air Raid in week two. In 2017, Nevens was the second freshman in school history to lead SJSU in rushing yards – he finished the year with 670 – and he did that on 4.1 yards per carry. Granted, his TD count (one in 2017) will have to improve drastically for SJSU to gain any ground in the MWC – or to make a run at the Cougars.
Eastern Washington – Gage Gubrud, quarterback: First, a disclaimer: Gubrud had arguably the best wide receiver in FCS history by his side the last time the Eagles came to Pullman. Nonetheless, the EWU quarterback was making the first start of his career when he passed for 477 yards, on an efficient 34-of-40, for five touchdowns in a 45-42 upset of the Cougars. That’s not to mention the damage he did on the ground: 14 carries, 101 rushing yards and another touchdown. He’s collected plenty of accolades since then and enters his senior season as one of the top playmakers in the FCS.
USC – Cameron Smith, linebacker: As always, the Trojans give us plenty of options here, but we’ll go with Smith, an inside linebacker who finished his junior season on a variety of All-American teams and led USC in tackles for the second consecutive year. Smith and Porter Gustin form one of the most potent linebacker tandems in the country, although the Cougars missed out on seeing Gustin in 2017 because of an injury. There was a chance they wouldn’t have to see Smith this year, but the linebacker elected to return for his senior season, which only further solidified USC as a favorite in the competitive Pac-12 South.
Utah – Julian Blackmon, corner: Utah was the Pac-12’s only bowl winner last postseason and Blackmon was the Most Valuable Player of that game – the Heart of Dallas Bowl against West Virginia – with two interceptions. He had twice that many on the season to lead the Utes and also posted a team-high 10 pass breakups. What’s also notable is that Blackmon’s standout sophomore season came after a quiet freshman campaign that saw him appear in just four games and make only two tackles. If he can make similar strides between his sophomore and junior season, he’ll be in the running for All-Pac-12 First Team honors by the time the year’s over.
Oregon State – David Morris, safety: A 1-11 season didn’t elicit many fond memories for the Beavers, but Morris, the only returning All-Pac-12 performer for OSU, was responsible for a few of them. In 2017, as a true freshman who only started in eight games, Morris still managed to finish second on the team in tackles with 75. He chipped in another four tackles-for-loss and had one interception. OSU was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 North, but between Morris and junior Jalen Moore, the rebuilding Beavers could actually have one of the Pac-12’s top safety duos.
Oregon – Justin Herbert, quarterback: The Cougars played stifling defense against the Ducks in a 33-10 last year, but they were also fortunate UO’s sophomore gunslinger was watching from the sideline with a broken collarbone. Herbert, who’s grown a full head of hair since he last appeared for the Ducks, has become the face of this Oregon program and NFL scouts are gushing about his arm talent, which could place him in the Heisman Trophy mix come December, or even make him the top QB selected in the 2019 Draft.
Stanford – Bryce Love, running back: Yeah, who else? Love rushed for at least 100 yards in 11 of the 12 games he played last season and don’t think Stanford’s high-motor tailback won’t remember the one in which he failed to eclipse the century mark: Nov. 4 at WSU when the Cougars held him to just 69 yards on 16 carries. Love’s decision to return to Palo Alto for his season sent shockwaves around the country and he’s a favorite to win the 2018 Heisman Trophy by many accounts.
Cal – Jordan Kunaszyk, linebacker: A shivering memory of the 2017 season for Cougars fans came on a Friday night in October against Kunaszyk’s Golden Bears. The now-senior inside linebacker was Cal’s top tackler, with 11 takedowns, and he recorded 2.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack, one forced fumble and one interception in a 37-3 rout of the eighth-ranked Cougars. You could argue no individual player had a better game against WSU last season and even though he missed three games in 2017, Kunaszyk still led the Bears with 74 tackles.
Colorado – Drew Lewis, linebacker: The Sammamish, Washington, native was reportedly one of the best Buffaloes in the weight room this offseason, posting the team’s heaviest power clean, and maybe more surprisingly, the second-fastest 10-yard sprint. That combo of power and speed helped him lead Colorado with 119 tackles last season and the former Washington Husky rounded out his stat line with two sacks for 20 yards and four pass breakups. He and fellow LB Rick Gamboa should be a formidable duo for WSU when the Cougars visit Boulder in November.
Arizona – Khalil Tate, quarterback: At least 30-40 Wildcats would’ve appeared on this list before Tate last year. Now he joins Love and Herbert as Pac-12 Hesiman hopefuls after a breakout season that saw him amass 3,002 all-purpose yards and contribute 26 touchdowns while starting in only nine games for Arizona. Tate gave the Wildcats a jolt midway through the 2017 season and if he can replicate the numbers from his sophomore season, UA will once again be in the hunt for a Pac-12 South title.
Washington – Myles Gaskin, running back: Just like USC, you can pick your poison here. The Huskies return 11 players who earned all-conference honors in 2018, but none should be more identifiable to the Cougars than Gaskin, whose presence has loomed large in each of the last three Apple Cups. Gaskin’s career numbers against the Cougars? In three games he’s had 72 carries, rushed for 380 yards and scored seven touchdowns. With 4,055 career rushing yards, he needs just 51 more for the UW record and he’ll be pushing 5,000 – or well past it – by the time the Huskies visit the Cougars.
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