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Five predictions for Washington State’s football team in 2019

UPDATED: Thu., May 16, 2019

It’s the time of the year when way-too-early rankings and preseason predictions are dominating the college football world.

With more than 100 days until the opening kickoff of Washington State’s season, we play the guessing game and use what we learned during spring camp to make five predictions for the 2019 Cougars.

WSU Anthony Gordon (18) runs drills during a spring practice on Thursday, April 4, 2019, in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

1. We won’t predict WSU’s starting QB until August, but it’ll be one of these two players.

The questions looming around Gage Gubrud make it difficult to pencil him in as the Cougars’ starter – today and probably for at least another three months. Gubrud will need to show he’s fully healed from an ankle/foot injury that kept him out of spring camp. As someone who’s had multiple health scares over the last eight months, the Eastern Washington grad transfer will also have to keep himself on the field for four weeks to merely have a shot at starting in September.

WSU head coach Mike Leach said he plans to whittle down the QB race to two players at fall camp to invest more reps into the passers who are most likely to start for the Cougars. We can presume Gubrud will be one of those, simply because his late arrival and subsequent injury precluded him from getting the reps he needs for a fair evaluation.

Anthony Gordon and Trey Tinsley came out of spring camp last season essentially deadlocked, but Gordon started to pull away toward the end of spring practices last month and seems to have something of an edge on Tinsley heading into the summer.

Gordon was much stronger in the Crimson and Gray Game, throwing three touchdowns to Tinsley’s one and completed a higher clip of his passes, hitting on 70 percent compared to 52 for Tinsley. The spring game is an important piece of criteria and not much more than that, but based on the evidence gathered through the other 14 spring practices, it seems Gordon has a better a chance of competing alongside Gubrud when Leach starts splitting reps between two QBs, rather than three.

Washington State Cougars defensive end Will Rodgers III (92) warms up with teammates before the first half of a college football game on Friday, September 21, 2018, at LA Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, Calif. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

2. The defensive front will be the strength of Tracy Claeys’ unit this season.

One year after losing explosive defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa, the Cougars’ pass rush was surprisingly the best in the Pac-12 last season, generating a conference-high 38 sacks. We won’t go so far to say WSU will replicate that in 2019, but again, the defensive front will be the strength of the Cougars’ steadily improving defense.

This season will feel partly like the last one, in that WSU will have to figure out how to replace a fierce edge rusher with Polynesian bloodlines – Logan Tago, one year after Mata’afa. Besides Tago and nose tackle Taylor Comfort, a one-time walk-on who was better than anyone could have predicted in his single season as a scholarship player, the Cougars return everyone on the defensive line and go three deep at the “Rush” linebacker position.

If the Cougars only had Nnamdi Oguayo, Will Rodgers III and Misiona Ailupotea-Pei returning on the defensive line, and Dominick Silvels and Willie Taylor III at “Rush,” they’d still be in good shape.

But now the depth of the D-line is cemented with nose tackle Lamonte McDougle, who was relegated to scout team duties last year after transferring from West Virginia and drew rave reviews from teammates and coaches all spring – many of whom simply called the 295-pounder a “tank.”

Another spring storyline was the emergence of redshirt freshman Ron Stone Jr., who gives outside linebackers coach Matt Brock a third option at the “Rush” spot – if he didn’t already have enough problems last season choosing between Silvels and Taylor III.

Ahmir Crowder and Dallas Hobbs are also capable fill-ins on the D-line, so not only does WSU’s defensive front possess more top-end talent than it did last year, it should be deeper.

Washington State Cougars running back Max Borghi (21) smiles on the sidelines during WSU's Crimson and Grey Scrimmage on Saturday, April 20, 2019, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

3. Max Borghi will have the top rushing season by a WSU running back in at least 12 years.

Which isn’t saying much, considering the volume of carries for Cougar tailbacks. In 2018, WSU was the only FBS team to record fewer than 350 rushing attempts, which also made it the only team in the country to run the ball fewer than 300 times. Seven of the last eight years, the Cougars have proudly owned that category, as the nation’s least-motivated rushing offense.

Individually, there’s been one 600-yard rushing season in Pullman since 2008, with Rickey Galvin and his 602 yards barely crossing the plateau in 2011. WSU sophomore Max Borghi will be responsible for the next one this fall.

Some combination of Jamal Morrow, James Williams, Gerard Wicks and Keith Harrington have made up the running back depth chart over the last half decade. Now that all four have filtered out, and there isn’t another proven back on the roster, everything would suggest that Borghi’s workload and production will increase.

The sophomore is WSU’s best offensive weapon. Without a firm solution at quarterback yet, one would presume Leach takes his chances on the ground more than he did in 2018 when the Cougars ran it just 21 times per game.

Washington State Cougars wide receiver Calvin Jackson Jr. (85) runs the ball for a touchdown against Arizona during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, November 17, 2018, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

4. Calvin Jackson Jr. will emerge as the Cougars’ top “X” wide receiver.

This may have been a steaming hot take last May, when Jackson Jr. was a relatively unknown commodity and Tay Martin was looking like someone who was a year away from being the top receiver in the conference. And of the five guesses I’m making here, it’s still probably the one with which I’m least comfortable.

Even though he led Cougars receivers in yards last season and matched Easop Winston with eight touchdowns, Martin struggled with consistency toward the end of the season, right as Jackson Jr. was proving he could be a viable option for WSU at the “X” outside position.

Martin’s season stats still dwarf those of Jackson, who didn’t find a spot in the rotation until the Cougars committed to redshirting Rodrick Fisher. But through the final five games of the season, Martin and Jackson had 17 catches apiece and Jackson scored two touchdowns to Martin’s one. Even with a monster 124-yard game against Arizona, Martin’s receiving yards (206) were still just slightly better than Jackson’s (202).

Leach felt comfortable divvying up the “X” reps evenly toward the end of the season and continually urged Martin to give more effort in practices. This spring, Leach scolded the receivers for their lack of toughness. While he didn’t list anyone individually, Leach said players like Jackson, Winston and Brandon Arconado had been exceptions, indicating Martin was among the receivers who needed to crank up his effort and toughness.

Both players should hold onto their rotation spots in the fall, but Jackson’s late-season/spring surge and Martin’s slow regression could lead to a swap atop the depth chart.

Utah Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) shakes off Washington State Cougars linebacker Dillon Sherman (41) and escapes the pocket during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, September 29, 2018, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

5. The Cougars’ game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake on Sept. 28 will feature two top-15 teams.

In mid-February, one of those way-too-early preseason Top 25 lists compiled for fans that can’t wait until September for their college football fix had Washington State and Utah inside the top 20. The Cougars probably won’t open the season ranked No. 13, as Mark Schlabach suggested, and the Utes may not have enough confidence from Top 25 voters to check in at No. 18.

But don’t be surprised if WSU and Utah are top-15, undefeated teams when they meet in September for a consequential early-season interdivisional matchup.

The Cougars would have to get past New Mexico State, Northern Colorado and Houston in nonconference play and upend UCLA in a Pac-12 opener at Martin Stadium. If WSU wins those first three, it should be favored comfortably in the fourth.

Utah’s path is slightly trickier. The Utes will be big favorites in their second and third games – home, nonconference contests against Idaho State and Northern Illinois – but their first and fourth feature road challenges at BYU and USC.

If both teams take care of the first four games, there will be plenty of intrigue surrounding the fifth one.

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