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Washington State mailbag: Taking a stab at next year’s QB and who starts in the secondary against Oregon State

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 20, 2019

PULLMAN – How many of these mailbags will we have left? The Cougars can decide that this Saturday against Oregon State, or we’ll wait another week for the Apple Cup to determine whether we get a Cheez-It Bowl/Sun Bowl/Vegas Bowl version of the weekly question bag.

There’ll be plenty of time to talk bowls, so let’s focus on a more immediate and pertinent issue: the Cougars’ 2020 quarterback competition. In this edition of the mailbag, I handicap the QB race for next fall, I predict who will be starting in the secondary against Oregon State and I offer some insight on Anthony Gordon’s NFL Draft stock.

What’s your 2020 preliminary QB depth chart look like?

– Nikko

Figure I’ll be getting this one plenty over the next six months, so I might as well practice answering it.

I’d have a more detailed and conclusive answer for you if I’d spent time watching Thursday Night Football scimmaged this season, but those are closed off to the media (like all practices), so it’s hard to get a true gauge on how Cammon Cooper and Gunner Cruz are development.

The conclusion I can make is Cooper’s taken more TNF reps than Cruz, so theoretically he should be about a year ahead. The last time I watched both take snaps during the final preseason scrimmage, Cooper did look more comfortable in the offense, and the game seemed to be coming much easier.

Cruz, on the other hand, was more frantic, rushed a number of his throws and looked pretty raw. As I’ve said, Cruz looks a lot like Cooper did at the same point of Cooper’s redshirt season. It takes awhile to mature in this offense, and the guy who’s starting for this team right now is the case in point.

So, that 2020 depth chart:

  • QB1: Cammon Cooper, RSo.
  • QB2: Gunner Cruz, RFr.
  • QB3: John Bledsoe, RJr.
  • QB4: Jayden de Laura, Fr.

But, there are plenty of variables, and I wouldn’t be shocked if the chart looks nothing like the one I just offered up. Bledsoe hasn’t practiced all year because of a leg injury, otherwise I wouldn’t totally rule out him pushing Cooper and Cruz for the job. This chart is also assuming de Laura honors his commitment to the Cougars and signs in a month.

If he does, de Laura only occupies one of the three QB scholarships available with Anthony Gordon, Trey Tinsley and Gage Gubrud all leaving. Does Mike Leach fill the other two? And if so, how? Sooner or later, I’ll do my grad transfer QB homework (it’s become an obligatory part of this beat). Or maybe the Cougars look to bring in a junior college transfer.

I have a suspicion Leach won’t simply settle with the signal-callers he has currently, which isn’t an indictment on Cooper/Cruz, same as it wasn’t an indictment on Gordon/Tinsley when Gubrud arrived.

But if a capable transfer is available, it never hurts to add depth.

What does Anthony Gordon’s draft stock look like?

– 509Griz

And just like that, we’re back from the future.

To say what his draft stock looks like would assume Gordon has any draft stock at all. At this point last year, I’d already spoken to a few different experts who were already considering Gardner Minshew a legitimate prospect. Trent Dilfer told me Minshew was capable of landing in the first three rounds and in hindsight, maybe that’s where he belonged.

I haven’t seen nearly the same buzz around Gordon, who’s not much different than Minshew in that scouts have just one real season to grade him on. If Gordon was quarterbacking a 9-1 Washington State team, rather than one that’s 5-5, he’d obviously be drawing a few more eyes with the national exposure the Cougars would have playing on ESPN, FOX, etc.

In some ways, Gordon’s numbers through 10 games are more impressive than Minshew’s through 13. But, with the exception of Oregon, Gordon’s also failed to make some of the critical late-game plays Minshew made last year. A counterargument could be made that Minshew benefitted from a much better defense, but he also delievered when it mattered in games against Utah, Oregon, Cal and Iowa State. Gordon came up short in late-game scenarios against UCLA and Arizona State, and even with the gaudy numbers, he hasn’t lifted this team in many of the same ways Minshew did.

Gordon won’t have enough time to vault himself into the top tier – the one that includes Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa (until recently), Jacob Eason, Jake Fromm and Jordan Love – but if he can close strong, play well in the Apple Cup and impress in a bowl game where he’ll have a little more exposure, perhaps he can slip into the sixth-, seventh-round conversation.

An invite to the Senior Bowl would obviously be huge, and that doesn’t seem like too much of a long shot, especially with Minshew and Luke Falk having successful weeks in Mobile the last two years.

Please take a stab at the defensive secondary starters this week, and the Beavs passing yards?

– Ray L.

Good thing I didn’t get this question last week. Truthfully, I’ll probably fail this week too.

That’s because the Cougars have rolled out eight different configurations in the defensive secondary this season, and we haven’t seen the same configuration in consecutive games since the Houston/UCLA/Utah stretch, when it was Skyler Thomas at nickel, Marcus Strong and George Hicks III at the corners and Bryce Beekman and Daniel Isom at the safeties.

So, with five different starting groups in five games, here goes nothing.

Nickel: Armani Marsh

Cornerback: Marcus Strong

Strong safety: Skyler Thomas

Free safety: Bryce Beekman

Cornerback: Derrick Langford

So far, Strong and Beekman have been the only players who’ve held their same starting positions in all 10 games. Maybe Hicks III gets the nod over Langford, but I thought Langford was the team’s best cornerback against Stanford, and Leach sang his praises in the weekly news conference.

“Thought he did a good job,” Leach said. “Really think that if he prepared all year like he did this last week, he’d be a really good player right now.”

And let’s go with 445 for OSU passing yards.

Do you think OSU will try as many trick plays this year as last year?

– Jennifer D.

I’m sure Jonathan Smith has a few tricks loaded up, and maybe we see one or two, but I’d anticipate we’ll see a more conventional Oregon State offense this time around.

Last season, if you remember, the Beavers came into the WSU game fairly shorthanded, and they’d started the season 1-4, so I suspect Smith was slightly more daring because he felt he had nothing to lose and needed to try something to ignite his offense.

Quarterback Jake Luton was injured, so OSU leaned on backup Conor Blount, who I imagine would be a third- or fourth-stringer most everywhere else in the Pac-12. The Beavers got plenty done on the ground with workhorse running back Jermar Jefferson, who had four touchdowns, but they were also missing another solid back in Artavis Pierce. It was also the only game the Beavers played without Isaiah Hodgins, who’s leading the Pac-12 in receiving yards one year later. OSU also seems much stronger on the offensive line than it did in 2018.

So, I don’t think the Beavers need to be as gimmicky as they were, and maybe that’s also reinforced by how shaky WSU has been on defense this season. If I had to take a stab at how many trick plays we see on Saturday, I’d guess more than zero but fewer than three.

Liam Ryan has really struggled with penalties this year, especially false starts. Do you think that’s because he’s on the edge and has to deal with edge rushers? Do you see him moving back inside next year, or will Kingston take over for Valencia?

– Jon Y.

If you want a deeper look at this, I dived into the topic last week and got some pretty good insight from offensive line coach Mason Miller. He told me, pretty explicitly, the false starts are “embarrassing” and Ryan needs to work on staying more disciplined.

Miller didn’t want to use the position change as a scapegoat, necessarily, though he admitted to me that could play a smaller role. But Ryan’s biggest crutch is a desire to get off the ball too quickly, which causes him to jump early, and it’s actually something Andre Dillard was still having a problem with when Miller took over in the spring of 2018. So, there’s hope yet.

“I think it does have to do with getting off the ball and communication,” Miller said. “But still, you can’t do it. I tell them all the time, I could really care less. But it is, I’ll admit it, it’s embarrassing. The false starting is a problem.”

Ryan had false started or held in nine consecutive games and had 15 penalties dating back to the season opener against New Mexico State, but he took a positive step against Stanford and wasn’t penalized once in the 49-22 win.

I suspect Ryan will stay out at left tackle and Kingston, who’s already taken some live bullets at left guard, will be the one replacing Valencia. Then Brian Greene for Fred Mauigoa at center.

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