Nick Rolovich held a mid-afternoon conference call Wednesday, then met with a small scrum of reporters at Northern Quest Resort & Casino a few hours later to brief the media on the six players Washington State added to the 2020 recruiting class on National Signing Day.
Wednesday also signified Rolovich’s first media availabilities since his introductory press conference last month. It was a valuable opportunity to learn about the newest Cougar signees, but it also presented a chance to pick the coach’s brain on a variety of other topics.
While the local media quizzed Rolovich, WSU’s game-day radio broadcast team of Matt Chazanow and Alex Brink spent time in the Cougar Football Complex with four coordinators and assistant coaches, who offered more insight on how the program will look going forward.
We focused on five things, not related to the signing class, gleaned from Wednesday’s conversations.
1. Quarterbacks first
Twice on Wednesday, Rolovich addressed what guarantees to be the top storyline entering the spring camp, which will begin the final week of March and culminate on April 25 with the Crimson & Gray Game. For the third straight year, the Cougars graduated a senior starting quarterback, and once again, there isn’t a clear-cut choice to succeed that person.
The only difference this time? Every quarterback should have a clean slate, which theoretically would make it easier for a freshman to win the job right away. In WSU’s case, that freshman, Jayden de Laura, already has prior experience in Rolovich’s offense – the run-and-shoot – playing in it at Saint Louis in Honolulu.
“Every quarterback will have the chance to start,” Rolovich said.
For now, the Cougars project to have only two scholarship quarterbacks, redshirt sophomore Cammon Cooper and redshirt freshman Gunner Cruz, on the roster when spring camp opens, with a third, de Laura, joining them in August. By comparison, there were five scholarship QBs on the WSU roster in 2020.
It’s conceivable Rolovich would look at spending his last available scholarship on a transfer quarterback, or that he’d gift it to a returning walk-on such as John Bledsoe, who didn’t look out of place next to Cooper and Cruz last spring before suffering a long-term lower body injury.
Rolovich drew from his final season at Hawaii to explain how the pecking order could change midseason, if one QB overtakes another, or if a certain matchup is more suitable for one QB’s skill set versus the other. The Rainbow Warriors occasionally pulled junior starter Cole McDonald in favor of redshirt freshman Chevan Cordeiro, and Cordeiro actually got the starting nod in three separate games.
“What we did last year with the quarterback position, basically sitting Cole McDonald, who was probably on his way to becoming the Mountain West Player of the Year, for Chevan Cordeiro just because I felt Chevan was playing better as of late,” Rolovich said. “It was a hard decision to make, and we were playing San Jose. I felt in my heart that was the best quarterback to play in that game, and I’ll do the same thing here.
“The best guy’s got to play, and I don’t care who you are. All those things, and this is about this team and winning football games. Everyone will be graded, they will be able to view their grade sheets. Let’s put it out on the table, this you didn’t do right, this you did do right, you’re getting the reps today.”
2. Dickert’s defense
Defensively speaking, the Cougars will look different than they have in the past, which is both a statement about the formation they’ll use going forward and the type of players they’ll be recruiting to fit Jake Dickert’s defense.
The new defensive coordinator prefers to use a 4-2-5 scheme, with four traditional defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs, including a roving nickel/SAM linebacker.
“We’ve been more 4-2-5, really establishing the line of scrimmage,” Dickert told Chazanow and Brink. “We want to build everything on our defense from inside-out, so it starts with that 3-technique. And that’s what you’re going to see today with a few of those guys in our signing class that can really establish themselves in the middle. So we’re going to build it there, build it up front.”
The other philosophical difference, as mentioned above, is the type of athlete the Cougars will look for on defense. Alex Grinch targeted smaller, quick-twitch athletes who could thrive in his “Speed D,” whereas Dickert aims to “change the mindset from being small and fast to physical and aggressive.”
The young DC expanded on what his defense will look like and where its roots come from.
“The broad end of the scheme is in the Tampa 2 package, the Seattle 3,” Dickert said. “Where we kind of got all of our stuff is from the Jacksonville Jaguars, so a lot of stuff that people saw in the Super Bowl with the 49ers is a lot of things we want to try and incorporate in our schemes. So a lot of base Cover 3 stuff, man (coverage) and just being aggressive when we can.”
3. Logistically speaking…
For the first time since the Paul Wulff era in Pullman, WSU will have a designated offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator. Brian Smith will be in charge of the offense as a whole and coach the running backs, while Dickert will run the defense and double as the Cougars’ linebackers coach.
How will the logistics work on game day?
In the past, WSU’s offensive play-caller, Mike Leach, signaled in plays from the sideline, and while it’s unclear if those duties will fall to Rolovich or Smith, the new offensive coordinator did clarify Wednesday he’s more comfortable doing his work from the press box.
“I love being up there, it kind of emotionally detaches you from the game a little bit,” Smith said on the National Signing Day radio show. “You can be a little more analytical when you are evaluating and calling the offense.”
For the Cougars’ various defensive coordinators, it’s been a matter of personal preference. Alex Grinch started in the booth because it gave him a better vantage point of his own position group, the secondary, but eventually moved down to the sideline because it allowed him to make quick corrections.
Dickert, who comes to WSU from Wyoming, also prefers a more hands-on approach and says he’ll coach from the field, which makes it easier to communicate with his designated position group.
“I’m comfortable down there, I think at the linebacker position it’s the core of what we do,” Dickert said. “So just adjustments and sometimes calming those guys down and making sure we’re on the right page as a staff, I’ll be down on the field.”
4. On the same page
Three different coaches spoke Wednesday about the importance of chemistry between quarterbacks and wide receivers in the run-and-shoot – an offense that’s largely predicated on wide receiver motion and wideouts making changes mid-route.
Naturally, the Air Raid wouldn’t be functional without strong quarterback-receiver chemistry, but those relationships are even more essential in the run-and-shoot to assure the two positions are on the same page.
“What we do, so much depends on the relationship, whether it’s the combination not only of skill sets on the field but people, character and I guess the easiest way to say is relationships,” Rolovich said. “The two receivers on the right have got to have a great relationship, the quarterback’s got to have a great relationship with all the receivers, the two slots got to have a great relationship when we get to trips.”
WSU’s quarterbacks and receivers will meet with one other on a daily basis to develop a better comprehension of the other position.
“They have to understand coverages, there’s a lot of post-snap adjustments with the receivers,” Smith said. “So for them, they really have to be another coach on the field because there’s a lot of communication with the quarterbacks and the receivers based on what they see and why they’re doing what they’re doing.
“… That’s the reason the quarterbacks and receivers always meet together, so the receivers are hearing exactly what the quarterbacks are hearing and you get to have dialogue between the quarterbacks and the receivers in the meeting. … I think that dialogue allows the learning to be better and the understanding of the two positions to be better.”
5. Mad hatter
On a lighter, non-football note, what about Rolovich’s infatuation with headwear?
The WSU coach is obligated to wear a headset on game day, but in most other settings, Rolovich prefers to cover his head with one of about a dozen hats. Rolovich showed up to Wednesday’s “Night With Cougar Football” event wearing a worn leather bucket hat – his personal favorite – and he arrived to WSU’s basketball game against Oregon State a few weeks ago in a classic black fedora.
“I remember my dad had a 40th birthday party, a surprise birthday party, I got to go to the first part of it,” Rolovich said. “And no gifts, you could only bring a hat. I think that’s when I first started getting (into it). Everybody brought cool hats, fencing masks and fire helmets. I remember that, then now it’s kind of, got to wear the hat and I’ve got bad hair.”
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