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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State mailbag: On Travion Brown, Cougars v. Cougars and USC’s potential interest in AD Pat Chun

Sept. 11, 2019 Updated Wed., Sept. 11, 2019 at 5:38 p.m.

PULLMAN – So, you’re curious about Travion Brown?

In this week’s mailbag, I talk about the true freshman linebacker, why he’s been able to dazzle the first two weeks of the season and what his role might look like Friday against Houston.

In addition, we examine the Cougars vs. Cougars matchup in more detail, assess WSU’s tackling woes and address the Pat Chun-to-USC rumors.

Is Brown our most athletic linebacker and our best option to “spy” on King this week?

– Jeremy B.

More than a few of you had questions about Brown this week, so I’ll try to cover a handful of them in my response below.

In addition to the question above I also got…

“Do you think with how well Travion Brown is playing that they will burn his redshirt and play him all season?”


“How big of a role will Travion Brown have in slowing down Houston’s QB?”

In addition to…

“Will anyone ever wear #82 for the Cougs again after Travion Brown leaves for the NFL?”

We’ll knock that last one out of the way first. I expect a full-sized statue of Brown in front of Martin Stadium by the time UCLA comes to town and nothing less. Sept. 21 against the Bruins will also be “Travion Brown Bobblehead Day” and WSU’s concession stands will start selling the Travion Brown “Sack” Lunch special. And the NCAA won’t say a word about any of it!

It’s been awhile since Washington State fans have been this excited about a true freshman on the defensive side of the ball. Jalen Thompson may have been the last one to generate this much hype as a rookie, or perhaps Hercules Mata’afa. But possibly neither.

The unknown was how the Cougars would use Brown once he got to campus. Here’s what his high school coach, Dechon Burns of Linfield Christian, predicted last fall when Brown committed to WSU.

“He’s a matchup problem at receiver in high school but I think his money-making, his bread’s going to get buttered – I believe it and I know it – playing that linebacker position,” he said. “He’s long, he’s rangy, he’s strong. He’s got good hands, he’s got good feet and he’s tenacious.”

Even without starting in either of WSU’s two games, Brown’s managed to rack up more tackles than any teammate not named Jahad Woods and he relentlessly chased Northern Colorado players around the field last Saturday, accumulating eight tackles to bring his season total to 12.

As for if he’s the most athletic linebacker on the team, I suppose it’s difficult to measure that. Woods insisted he was faster than Brown in Saturday’s postgame press conference, so we’ll go ahead and take the junior’s word for it. But, I don’t believe there’s a linebacker on the team who better blends size and athleticism than Brown.

That’s even helped him mask some of his inexperience, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys suggested Tuesday.

“He flies around, he plays fast and he’s learned the game obviously,” Claeys said. “He’s got a ways to go to learn the game, but he’s a good enough athlete right now he’s able to make up for a few of those mistakes because he plays hard and he’s usually in the right spot.”

With his experience and agility, Woods may be the best option if the Cougars do plan on using a single player to spy D’Eriq King. I don’t think Brown would be a bad pick either and his longer frame could help WSU shut down some of the quarterback’s running lanes.

Will the Cougars burn his redshirt? It seems inevitable at this point.

What in the world has happened with Calvin Jackson? He’s gone from Twitter and hasn’t caught a pass. Went from pushing toward being a starter to GONE. What up?

– Ray L.

Unless I missed something, Jackson still appears to be fairly active on Twitter – and he always has been one of the more active social media users on this team. Perhaps he deactivated his account and then reactivated it without me noticing.

So, while I can’t speak to him fading from social media, yes, he’s been noticeably absent from the field and hasn’t been part of the “X” receiver rotation these first two games. It is odd given how optimistic coaches seemed to be for the senior during spring and fall camp. I’m confident he was the top choice at the position by the end of spring and he didn’t appear to regress during fall camp. Mike Leach actually told us midway through camp he was a step ahead of the other two “X” receivers, Rodrick Fisher and Tay Martin.

But Fisher came on toward the end of the team’s stay in Lewiston, outplaying every wide receiver on the final day at Sacajawea Junior High (also the same day Tay Martin was excused from practice) and maintaining his rhythm when the team returned to Pullman to close out preseason camp. Martin played well the last week of camp and potentially won his way back into the rotation, therefore pushing Jackson out.

Mike Leach was questioned about Jackson after Tuesday’s practice.

“He’s doing a lot of good things,” Leach said. “Tay’s gotten hot recently and then Rodrick was a week ago, so yeah they’re kind of going back and forth.”

And outside receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. spoke to about his receiver after Sunday night’s practice.

“A lot of things kind of going on with that, but yeah just hasn’t had a lot of balls come his way,” Spurrier Jr. said. “But the rest of the guys are doing good.”

“(Jackson) understands kind of how it works around here. He’ll be fine.”

My best assumption is that all three receivers are playing keep away for the moment and that Jackson will get his opportunity eventually. But the first portion of Spurrier Jr’s comment also stands out to me: “A lot of things kind of going with that.” So perhaps it is something more than his performance in practice these last few weeks.

Are you familiar with either Silvels’ or Calvin’s “injuries?” Enough so that you could speculate if either will return soon?

– Bryan

I’ve written about both situations in the past five days (albeit our update on Calvin came after your question was submitted) but I’ll provide a refresher for anyone who may have missed it.

From what I understand, Dominick Silvels’ absence is not at all injury-related. As I reported Saturday after the Northern Colorado game, Mike Leach told me the linebacker is dealing with “personal issues” and it’s unclear what those are and when they’ll be resolved. Leach did say there’s a chance Silvels could be back for the Houston game: “I think he will be, but I’m not sure. I don’t know yet.” And no updates since then.

As for Calvin, it’s hard to speculate he’ll be back anytime soon after Leach addressed the wide receiver’s situation Tuesday. The coach doesn’t address injuries specifically, but he was willing to offer us a clue as to if a redshirt could be on the table for Calvin if he’s unable to play soon.

“Yeah, if the thing doesn’t shape up,” Leach said. “It’s definitely on the table, you know.”

In our world, that might as well be a full injury report. I know some of you have already suggested Calvin take advantage of the four-game redshirt rule, which would potentially allow the junior to play in the final three games of the regular season plus a bowl game and still preserve two additional years of eligibility.

Fortunately, WSU’s offense hasn’t missed Calvin much with a fellow “Y” receiver, Brandon Arconado, leading the team in catches and receiving yards. That said, Calvin’s absence could be more apparent once the Cougars open Pac-12 play.

How much are the teams getting paid for playing in the Advocare Kickoff?

– Chris A.

It’s my understanding Washington State will earn $100,000 from the Adovcare Texas Kickoff, though I’m not sure if the payout is the same for Houston.

When the game was originally scheduled to be played at Houston’s TDECU Stadium, WSU was expected to cover its own expenses and Houston would do the same for a return trip to Pullman next season.

Do you think that WSU will be more solid with tackling from the get go in this game?

– Jennifer D.

It’s been heavily emphasized in practice this week and given that it wasn’t much of an issue last season, I wouldn’t expect it to be something the Cougars continue to battle.

Some players chalked it up to not wrapping up the ball-carrier as well as they should, but the larger consensus was the Cougars weren’t executing their assignments and were lacking gap integrity.

“It’s pretty easy, it’s one guy in each gap so until we get that we’re going to struggle stopping the run,” Claeys told reporters Wednesday.

Nose tackle Lamonte McDougle suggested after Saturday’s game some players were trying to fill a teammate’s gap, rather than sticking to their own assignment.

Claeys didn’t necessarily identify that as a larger issue, saying “I don’t know, I didn’t ask them, we just worked on them getting in the right gap. So everybody gets in their gap, the run game will be taken care of.”

Nonetheless, Claeys’ tone while discussing the tackling woes led me to believe it’s something he and his defensive assistants don’t have much patience for right now. If it isn’t cleaned up Friday, I’d expect some long, tough practices next week.

Will Dana Holgorsen’s hair blow around due to the air conditioning in NRG Stadium? Will it be a distraction?

– Ian K.

More likely: Houston’s lackluster defense forces Holgorsen to pull out every strand of hair by halftime and the coach sends out for a wig. His GA returns empty-handed. WSU wins going away and the headline in Saturday’s Houston Chronicle reads, “Bald, but not beautiful.”

What Houston weaknesses do you expect WSU to capitalize on?

– Bean

So far, Houston doesn’t seem to have many discernible weaknesses on offense and did well to score 31 points at Oklahoma in the season opener, then hung 37 points on Prairie View A&M. But Holgorsen’s defense is still a work in progress and way too big of a project to fix in just three weeks.

Just look back at Houston’s last three games against opponents running the Air Raid, or a scheme similar to it. In the opener against Oklahoma, Sooners quarterback Jalen Hurts hit on 20-of-23 passes for 332 yards and three touchdowns. Last season, against Sonny Dykes and SMU, Houston allowed the Mustangs to complete 28-of-43 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-31 loss. Before that, Texas Tech pinned down a 63-49 win over Houston in Lubbock – a game that saw the Red Raiders’ freshman QB, Alan Bowman, chart just the fifth 600-yard game in school history while throwing for five touchdowns.

So, Houston hasn’t offered much resistance against offense that like to throw a ton and it goes without saying, that should be plenty advantageous for a WSU team that airs it more than anyone in the country.

OK, so maybe there is a glitch in Holgorsen’s offense. Through two games, Houston has allowed an alarming number of sacks: three against Oklahoma and four against Prairie View. By comparison, opponents have sacked WSU quarterback Anthony Gordon just once in two games and Leach’s Cougars have thrown 37 more passes than Holgorsen’s. Expect WSU’s defense – one that led the Pac-12 in sacks last season – to apply heaps of pressure Friday night.

Do you think Chun leaves for USC AD opening?

– Jordan M.

This has obviously been floated more than a few times since Lynn Swann’s sudden exit earlier in the week. Jon Wilner of the Mercury News and Pac-12 Hotline said Chun was “the no-brainer, absolute No. 1 option.

“Chun gets college sports, understand football, is relentless with donors, alumni and former players and would establish an infrastructure and culture that would greatly reduce the likelihood of future embarrassment,” Wilner wrote.

The Athletic’s Andy Staples also suggested the Trojans take a peek at Chun’s résumé, noting his understanding of the Pac-12 while suggesting his time at Ohio State could help him at another one of the country’s blue-blood schools.

Here’s why we think Chun could be an attractive choice at USC:

  • He’s shown an aggressive approach to making leadership changes, replacing coaches in three of the four major sports (men’s basketball, women’s basketball, baseball). And anyone following the Pac-12 knows a certain program at USC may need a leadership change sooner than later.
  • Which brings us to our next point: Chun’s time at Ohio State could help the Trojans lure a big-name coach. Somebody like, oh, Urban Meyer?
  • He understands the conference landscape better than most.
  • Chun’s fundraising prowess has been instrumental for a small-market school like Washington State, so it’s easy to imagine the kind of donations he’d be able to pull in at a place like USC.

And here’s why WSU’s AD will remain just that for the foreseeable future:

  • Chun’s ability to fundraise was a major selling point for the Cougars, but USC doesn’t need that as much as it needs someone who can rebuild the department’s infrastructure and restore the trust of the fan base. Not to say Chun wouldn’t be capable of that, but the disasters USC’s faced over the last few years don’t compare to anything he’s done at WSU.
  • While Chun hired Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic, he hasn’t made a big-time football hire at a big-time football school just yet.
  • Chun was hired only 1½ years ago and while he may not be someone who plans to establish roots on the Palouse, he brought his wife and three young daughters to Pullman and may not be prepared for another big move.
  • Mike Leach would make a plea to keep his athletic director, allowing him to call one offensive play per game. Just not a run play.
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