These may not have been the circumstances, but two years ago Nick Rolovich probably envisioned Jayden de Laura starting – and starring – in his run-and-shoot offense when he offered the young quarterback a scholarship at the University of Hawaii, three months before de Laura played his first varsity game at Honolulu powerhouse Saint Louis.
There’s not a coconut tree in sight now, but the coach’s vision may still play out in year one at Washington State.
According to multiple sources, de Laura, the true freshman from Hawaii, won a three-way battle with redshirt sophomore Cammon Cooper and redshirt freshman Gunner Cruz, and was told last week he’d be starting for the Cougars in the Nov. 7 season opener at Oregon State (7:30 p.m., FS1).
De Laura will become the first true freshman since at least the 1970s to start for WSU in the season opener. According to the school’s sports information department, none have done so since the NCAA forced freshmen to sit one year and “mature” before they were allowed to play. Because record books prior to the 1970s are incomplete, de Laura will be considered the first QB in program history to start as a true freshman on opening day, and he’ll be just the third true freshman to start a game regardless of circumstance, joining Jeff Tuel and Drew Bledsoe.
Last Tuesday, Rolovich told multiple media outlets he’d named a starting quarterback internally, but indicated he’d keep that information private before the season opener at Reser Stadium, primarily to keep the Beavers guessing.
“I’m not terribly happy I made the mistake of saying we named one internally,” Rolovich said. “I don’t want to put anything on our team where they need to worry about it, need to answer questions about it, whatever. So that’s on me.
“But I think as much element of surprise as we can do for the first thing is usually something I like to do.”
Rolovich said his starter had began taking approximately 50% of the practice reps, with the two others getting 25% each.
The decision may not come as a major surprise, considering de Laura’s experience in the run-and-shoot – an offense he began learning before grade school and mastered while going undefeated and winning two state championships at Saint Louis, a private Catholic school in Honolulu that boasts an unmatched lineage of quarterbacks. Others who’ve come through the Saint Louis pipeline include Miami Dolphins starter Tua Tagovailoa, Oakland Raiders backup/former Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, former NCAA career passing leader Timmy Chang and ex-WSU standout/Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year Jason Gesser.
While de Laura had a few things working in his favor, Cooper and Cruz also had built-in advantages when it came to the QB race.
Cooper spent two years as an understudy to Gordon and Gardner Minshew, both Pac-12 record-holders in Mike Leach’s Air Raid, and the Utah native entered the season with the most experience in a college football environment, building rapport with WSU’s receivers, running backs and offensive linemen.
A former four-star recruit, Cooper, though maybe not as agile as de Laura, still has the mobility that could make him an effective run-and-shoot QB.
Cruz doesn’t measure up to the other two on the mobility scale, but the Arizona native carries a prototypical NFL frame at 6-foot-5, 217 pounds, and has the best arm strength of the three. Rolovich has routinely lauded the redshirt freshman for his outgoing persona and positive leadership.
Ultimately, in what seemed from the outside to be a tight battle – at least when it came to the top two choices – de Laura displayed the most consistency and accuracy, moving the chains during the team’s two scrimmages without committing a turnover and flashing his speed when the situation called for it.
In the scrimmages, de Laura was 20 of 27 for 179 yards, three passing touchdowns and one rushing score. Cooper was 11 of 22 for 171 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions, while Cruz was 16 of 33 for 118 yards and one rushing touchdown.
Cooper and de Laura came out of the first scrimmage neck and neck and even though Rolovich was generally unhappy with the play of his QBs in the second scrimmage, the true freshman’s numbers still popped. De Laura completed 10 of 13 passes for 46 yards and one touchdown, while the other two were a combined 7 of 22 for 73 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
“It’s a tight battle,” running back Max Borghi said after the second scrimmage. “… It’s close and some guys are having good days and other guys are having bad days. I think today Jayden had a better day than Cammon and Gunner, but that doesn’t mean tomorrow Jayden can’t have a worse day.”
De Laura has some breathing room now, but it may be unwise to take his foot off the gas pedal. Rolovich hasn’t been hesitant to play multiple quarterbacks in the past and last season at Hawaii, the coach occasionally turned to his younger backup, Chevan Cordeiro – a former prep teammate of de Laura – to spell Cole McDonald if Cordeiro matched up better against the Rainbow Warriors’ opponent.
With the inexperience of the position at WSU, the fact each of the three have unique skill sets and the uncertainty around COVID-19, Rolovich is under the impression he’ll have to play more than one QB this fall.
“They all have kind of their different goals and things to work on to get ready,” Rolovich said, “because I just have a feeling we’re going to have to play a bunch of them.”
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