PULLMAN – Our first edition of the Washington State mailbag is here. I wanted to get to as many of these questions as possible on the initial go-round, but in all likeliness the in-season mailbags will be a hair shorter.
For now, we talk Nnamdi Oguayo, the three-man battle at cornerback, Max Borghi’s potential and which pre-Renaissance geopolitical conflict Mike Leach is most likely to reference this season after a nonconference game.
Once the season starts, the mailbag will come out at some point in the middle of the week. Submit your questions on Twitter by using #CougQuestions, or shoot me an E-mail at email@example.com, using the subject line “Coug Questions.”
When Coach Leach talks about the performance of his QBs after a practice, and says he has to look at the film, what is he seeing on film that would change his opinion on what he actually saw on the field?
– Jennifer D./Dayton, Wash.
Coaches often say – OK, they actually say this religiously – it’s never as good or as bad as it looked (on the field). From their standpoint, it’s difficult to provide instant analysis without looking at the full picture, and that’s probably more true with the quarterbacks than it is for any other position.
So basically, they’re hesitant to make any immediate assertions in case there was something they missed.
In the case of the QBs, it’d be easy to look at the completion percentage or touchdown/interception totals and conclude one player was better than the other. (We in the media can be victims of doing that).
But say, for example, if Gage Gubrud was 8-of-10 passing with two touchdowns and no interceptions, while Anthony Gordon was 7 of 12 with one touchdown and one interception: On paper, we’d typically say Gubrud was stronger, but maybe it was an error in pass protection that forced Gordon to make a hasty throw into traffic, leading to the pick. Or maybe a wide receiver, playing on the opposite side of the field as Leach, ran a bad route that led to one of the incomplete passes – potentially one that could’ve gone for a touchdown otherwise. And even though Gubrud completed eight of his 10 attempts, perhaps two of those were short-yardage check downs because the QB looked off an open receiver that would’ve netted a bigger gain.
All of these variables can be hard to notice in the moment, but reviewing something two or three times on film, or reviewing it in slow motion, can help coaches determine why something happened the way it did – good or bad.
Which Coug defenders should we keep an eye out for this season? Does anybody from that side of the ball stand out as having a serious chance to enter NFL Draft conversations with a strong season down in the Palouse?
- Ben T./Spokane, Wash.
Now that Jalen Thompson’s out of the picture, I’m not sure there isn’t a real obvious choice here. It’s no secret the Cougars tend to take on smaller, faster players to anchor the defensive front, and their linebackers have generally lacked ideal NFL size. That’s worked wonders in Pullman and WSU, statistically, has improved on defense every year since Alex Grinch replaced Mike Breske. But, maybe a bit like Air Raid quarterbacks and wide receivers, it doesn’t translate so well to the next level.
To get back to your question, the one player that could have a glimmer of an opportunity would be Nnamdi Oguayo. Granted that would take a player whose career has been derailed by injury staying healthy for an entire season, and, at essentially the same playing weight/height as Hercules Mata’afa, he’d have to produce numbers reminiscent of what the now Minnesota Viking did two years ago. And even those only earned Mata’afa a free agent deal.
I’m interested to see what Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei does at nose tackle – likely starting nose tackle – this season and could see a scenario where cornerback Marcus Strong earns a free-agent deal or minicamp invite.
But draft picks? No, I’m afraid this defense doesn’t have any.
We have all been waiting for Nnamdi Oguayo to finally put together a healthy season and wreak havoc in opponents’ backfields. However, I have not seen him mentioned much in the fall practice reports and now see that he was a non-participant during Tuesday’s practice. How has Oguayo looked through fall camp, and if he stays healthy this year, should we be excited about the potential for a big year from him?
- Brian H./Bothell, Wash.
I touched on Oguayo a little above, but I’ll add to what I wrote earlier by saying I haven’t seen a defensive player at WSU – in my time on the beat – make the physical strides he has. Oguayo is one of the top lifters in the weight room and I believe he’s still the most agile pass-rusher on the team.
So, he clearly has the strength and athleticism to make a difference on the defensive line, but both of Oguayo’s last two seasons were marred by injury, never truly allowing him to get into a groove.
Leach doesn’t share injury information, but whatever Oguayo’s dealt with this camp doesn’t appear to be a significant issue. He didn’t participate in the scrimmage Saturday, but he did practice Friday, so I’d imagine coaches held him out for precautionary reasons like they did with a few other players.
I think we’re all eager to see what a fully healthy, senior version of Oguayo is capable of. I’m not allowed to “root” for the athletes I cover but someone who’s put that much work into his body and his craft deserves to finally catch a break.
If you had to predict, who gets the starting job at the CB opposite Marcus Strong? I assume George Hicks III will be the guy come Labor Day. Seems like Tyrese Ross has been performing well at SS, I am surprised they are not moving Isom back to CB to compete with Hicks. Do you think they are waiting to see if Ross can handle the pressure of a game and if he can’t they’ll have Isom to fall back on?
- Nathan S./Snohomish, Wash.
At times it’s been Hicks III at that cornerback spot. At times it’s been Armani Marsh. And at times it’s been Derrick Langford. There’s no doubt that’s the biggest question mark on defense right now and it’s one that’s caused some level of irritation among the coaches.
See this quote from defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys after Saturday’s scrimmage, in reference to the mixing and matching that’s gone on at the position: “That’s a sign of confusion. So, like I say, we’ve got 10 days to figure it out. Then we’ll see what happens. But it’s a close (battle), we’re grading it every day and that’s the one thing about it, I’m a little frustrated because we’re experimenting here a little bit too late. I’d rather not be experimenting right now.”
I’m not sure there’s a “clubhouse leader” at the spot right now, but I have an inkling the coaches are leaning toward Langford, who’s more experienced than both Hicks III and Marsh. Not to mention, he’s taller, at 6-foot-2, whereas Hicks III stands 6-foot and Marsh at 5-foot-8.
I’ll go with Langford right now, but I’d guess the rotating continues through the first week or two of the season. Those first few nonconference games could even be virtual tryouts, so coaches get a better feel for how each player responds to in-game scenarios that can’t be replicated in practice.
Isom has been the top choice at strong safety since the team was staging practices in Lewiston and it doesn’t appear he’ll let go of it before the season starts. Ross brings a vocal, almost brash presence to the secondary – you literally can’t miss the guy – but Isom’s less apt to make assignment errors at this point and even though he hasn’t played much safety, he has significantly more experience as a college football player, logging 10 games at Northern Illinois two years ago and 11 more at Iowa Western last season.
I believe Ross has a high ceiling, however, and I’m sure they’ll find ways to get him on the field this fall.
Do you still have the sunglasses I left at Birch & Barley? Also, do you expect Max Borghi to improve on his freshman year production and be the main man for the Cougs at the running back position?
- Brian S./Unknown, USA
I gave the sunglasses back to Birch & Barley, so you’ll have to make a trip back out here to get them (winky face). I know you miss the jambalaya anyway – almost as much as you miss me.
Borghi is unquestionably, undoubtedly, undeniably the main man. If the Cougars needed it, he’d gladly be their every-down back this season. Fortunately, they picked up Deon McIntosh over the summer, so ideally Borghi and McIntosh can rotate much like Borghi and James Williams did last season.
Still, we can expect Borghi to be the lead back the Cougars have the luxury of turning to in any situation.
He’s reliable as a safety valve in the passing game and was incredible after the catch last season, leading FBS running backs with 20 missed tackles according to Pro Football Focus metrics.
He’s capable of making explosive plays – something he reinforced the other day at practice when he sprinted through the secondary for what we figured would’ve been a 70-yard touchdown.
And I’m not sure there’s too many other backs in the conference you’d rather have in a fourth-and-short or goal line situation. But the Cougars also have another sure-fire tailback there, with 227-pound Clay Markoff, who has a 600-pound back squat.
All things equal between Gubrud and Gordon, which it seems like they have been through camp, could Gubrud’s game experience versus Gordon’s familiarity with the offense be the deciding factor? If so, what do you believe means more to Leach?
- Skeet C./Unknown, USA
Leach repeatedly tells reporters he’ll play the quarterback who moves the offense best. It can get redundant from time to time, but I truly believe he means it. That and accuracy seem to mean more than anything else to the coach.
But, as you mention, both have something going for them the other doesn’t. Gordon’s comfort level in the offense should be significantly higher than Gubrud’s and I think anyone who’s watched the Cougars in camp would agree that’s been the case. He looks calmer and more relaxed going through his progressions and is much more seasoned in making the throws an Air Raid quarterback has to make. The ball comes off his hand cleaner than it does Gubrud’s and as a former high school pitcher who was drafted by the New York Mets, his arm strength is better, too.
All those things can’t guarantee someone will be successful in a game, where 30-60,000 fans are hollering at you and you’re adjusting to the defense’s adjustments every other series. Gubrud’s made 28 career starts, which means he’s diagnosed a few-dozen different defenses, whereas Gordon’s only seen one – WSU’s – and it isn’t one he’ll ever have to face in a game. Gubrud’s seen a variety of pass coverages, blitz packages and pressures, and he knows how to handle adversity at this level. The EWU transfer has led come-from-behind wins and he’s lost in blowout fashion. He knows how to recover from throwing a bad interception on the road and manufacture a touchdown on the very next drive. Gordon isn’t totally inexperienced, having won a CCCAA championship at the JC level, but it’s fair to be leery of someone who’s never dealt with the noise of Autzen Stadium, the hostility of Husky Stadium or even the chilly weather at Martin Stadium.
How has Travion Brown looked? Will he play more than 4 games this year?
- Walker/Unknown, USA
The hype surrounding Brown during his recruiting process certainly wasn’t misplaced. Among the true freshmen on WSU’s roster, Brown may be the one who’s best suited to play right away – not counting long snapper Simon Samarzich, who should start for the Cougars this fall, and Jouvensly Bazil, who’d probably have to get reps if anything happened to Max Borghi or Deon McIntosh.
Fortunately and unfortunately for WSU, there isn’t a huge need at Brown’s inside linebacker position right now. That’s good because it means he’ll be able to get four games of experience and ideally preserve his redshirt. But it’s also tricky because with a pair of juniors (Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers) occupying the “Will” and “Mike” positions – and two more juniors (Dillon Sherman and Dom Silvels) behind those two – Brown may feel there isn’t room in the rotation for him. He also has the ability to play “Rush” linebacker, but the Cougars don’t seem to have a need there, either, with plenty of depth and youth.
Is it possible Brown could play his four games and browse the transfer portal this offseason? Who knows…
That said, Brown already looks the part of a Pac-12 linebacker and coaches have raved about his development and maturity.
Here’s linebackers coach Roc Bellantoni on the rookie: “Travion is picking things up unlike any freshman I’ve been around. We had him learning two positions. He still knows two, but I’m sticking him at one because that’s the one I think he can help us the best, providing depth. But he’s going to be a really good football player.”
How does Deon McIntosh look? Can you go into detail about what you like about him and how you seeing his role play out?
- Tyler B./Unknown, USA
Coaches were really splitting up the running back reps near the start of camp – well, the reps that weren’t Borghi’s reps – but now there’s a pretty clear pecking order at the position.
1. Max Borghi
2. Deon McIntosh
3. Clay Markoff
4. Jouvensly Bazil
5. Cole Dubots
It seemed they were reluctant to offer McIntosh the No. 2 spot right away, instead forcing him to earn it, but there’s no doubt he’ll be a valuable asset for the Cougars this fall with a toolbox that seems tailor-made for the Air Raid offense.
One of these days, I’ll really do some digging to find an NFL comparison to McIntosh, but for now I’d tell you he’s a hard runner who doesn’t shy from contact and is fairly adept at making defenders miss. You’ll see him spin around defenders or hop through a cluster of them if he needs to. In small spaces, he’s probably quicker than Borghi, but also seems to carry decent breakaway speed.
Running backs coach Eric Mele visited with the media Thursday and offered his thoughts on McIntosh for the first time since the former Notre Dame/East Mississippi Community College running back enrolled this summer.
“I watched his film coming out of junior college and really again kind of fits the mold of our offense,” he said. “… Shoulders square, gets the ball downhill, makes one cut, gets up field, that type of thing. And he’s a physical player, he’s pretty smart and he plays even bigger and tougher than he is. So that’s the kind of guys we like, that’s kind of our M.O. and it’ll be exciting to see him keep developing.”
I was wondering if you know anything about Jamire Calvin’s injury?
- Pablo/Seattle, Wash.
Do I know the exact nature of the injury? I don’t. Trying to obtain any kind of injury information around these parts can be like searching for the Holy Grail. And don’t take that as a complaint, it’s just how Mike Leach does, and always has done, business.
What I can tell you about Calvin is that the wide receiver has worn a boot on his right leg since spring camp. But, Calvin will occasionally remove the boot to do various conditioning and strength exercises throughout the course of practice, which leads me to believe he’s closer to a return than you’d think someone in a boot would be.
I don’t think the Cougars would feel a need to rush him back in the first two, three weeks of the season given the quality of the opposition and the surprise emergence of Kassidy Woods at the “Y” receiver position, but I have a gut feeling he’ll be back for the early part of the Pac-12 season – if not before then.
Who is the fastest player on the team?
- Jon Y./Unknown, USA
Good timing on this one. We actually asked Renard Bell who the fastest wide receiver on the team was earlier this camp and he reluctantly gave the nod to Rodrick Fisher.
And I might have given you Fisher’s name even without Bell’s advice. In high school, he won a pair of 2A state titles in the 100- and 200-meter. His school record in the 100 was a blistering 10.43 seconds and he holds 2A state meet records in both events.
Cornerback Marcus Strong could be in the conversation and “H” receiver Travell Harris might want a say, too.
I’d take some combination of those three in a 40-yard dash, but Jamire Calvin has to be the quickest in short 5-10-yard bursts.
I know a ton of focus has been on the QB and defensive backfield battles but I’ve only seen a handful of notes about to O Line. I know I might’ve missed some insight but curious as to your thoughts on how the boys up front are gelling so far. I’ve seen a number of times the D Line has been effective at getting pressure on the qb so I’m curious if the D Line is better than expected or if there’s some breakdowns up front offensively.
- Curtis Klep/Seattle, Wash.
This is a good question because a few of the local writers – myself included – have heaped lots of praise on the defensive line, which seems like it could be one of the strongest units on the team this season.
In many of these scrimmages and team periods, coaches are pitting the No. 2 offensive line against the No. 1 defensive line, or the No. 1 OL versus the No. 2 DL. So, the results of those matchups can be a little misleading.
I do think there’s a pretty significant gap between the No. 1 and 2 offensive line units right now, and that isn’t just because WSU’s offensive front is expected to be among the best in the conference this fall. The group’s depth is a little concerning, especially with Christian Haangana’s absence. Guard Jarrett Kingston also appeared to be coming into his own, but he hit a speed bump in camp and hasn’t participated for about a week now. I don’t foresee him returning soon. Jimmy Price was limited for awhile and worked back into the second OL unit earlier in the week.
So, I’d put this at 50/50. The D-line is deep and experienced, and their pre-snap movement often catches the second offensive line unit off-guard, which has led to an abundance of false start penalties these last two scrimmages. Still, the backups need to grow at some point, given that two starters are graduating this fall and two others have just one season left after this one.
How has Valencia performed at his guard spot? From videos it seems like a lot of push from the DL is coming up the middle and on that side.
- Coug-A S./Unknown, USA
On the offensive line, it does feel like Valencia’s struggled the most. But that shouldn’t be too surprising, considering he’s playing alongside a Rimington Trophy watch list center, a Freshman All-American right tackle and a left tackle who could work his way onto all-league ballots this fall.
Even as a sixth-year senior, Valencia’s easily the most inexperienced member of the offensive line, with only one career start in the 2018 Alamo Bowl when he replaced Josh Watson at right guard. Another factor to consider is that most of Valencia’s career reps have been on the right side of the center and now he’s playing on the left.
Earlier in camp, Leach and O-line coach Mason Miller both acknowledged it’s more challenging for a player to move from one side of the line to the other – in Valencia’s case, right guard to left guard – than it is if you’re making a move from left tackle to left guard, or vice versa on the other side.
“If you go to the other side of the center, then your stance changes a little and where the brunt of the rush comes from is opposite,” Miller said.
Valencia is also prone to the occasional mental lapse. He committed a false start during team period earlier in the week and was immediately pulled off the field by Miller.
But comparing Valencia to his mates on the front line may not be totally fair, considering WSU’s unit is expected to be one of the best in the conference. And there’s significant drop-off between Valencia and whoever would replace him – especially with Christian Haangana indefinitely out of the picture.
What pre-Renaissance geopolitical conflict is Mike Leach most likely to reference during a postgame press conference during the nonconference schedule?
- Kenny O./Unknown, USA
I’ll be honest, I was hoping I’d get at least one non-football question, but I wasn’t prepared in the slightest for anything like this. So much for putting my history minor to use.
Let’s go with the Crusades. Surely Leach can draw some sort of parallel between the Air Raid offense and reclaiming the Holy Land from the Muslims. Both involve attacking space, right?
OK Kenny, now you’ve used your one question for the year. And with that, thanks for playing everyone. Until next time…
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