College football coaches habitually say their depth chart is written in sand. It’s often a way of keeping competition alive between players, even if some are notably more talented than others.
First-year Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich is coming from a place with lots of sand. While he hasn’t uttered the phrase itself, every indication is that the Cougars’ depth chart will be more uncertain this year than it ever has been.
Part of that has to do with the shortened season, and the fact that coaches didn’t have an opportunity to monitor players during spring camp.
Part of it has to do with the staff itself being new. At this point, fans have seen more of the Cougars in game settings than their coaches have.
Part of it is that with so many vacancies at so many positions, it’s still too early and challenging to determine who’s the best fit where.
Rolovich has said he wants the Cougars to be competitive in 2020, but with a seven-game season, it’s also an opportunity to get a look at a handful of players who’ll still be in the fold when college football returns in earnest next fall – ideally with a full 12-game slate, plus the postseason. Because of recent NCAA legislation, every player on this year’s WSU roster is eligible to return next season without using a year of eligibility.
So while Rolovich hopes to give the fan base a few memorable moments these next few months, he’s also building for the future. Below we examine what he has to work with.
Offense QuarterbackQB1: Jayden de Laura, Fr. (6-0, 195). QB2: Cammon Cooper, RSo. (6-4, 208) or Gunner Cruz, RFr. (6-5, 217)
In 2017, WSU’s starting quarterback was a fifth-year senior former walk-on. In 2018, a journeyman graduate transfer. And in 2019? A redshirt senior junior-college transfer who bided his time for an opportunity that was never promised.
Considering all that, how about this for a curve ball? In 2020, the Cougars plan to go with a true freshman, de Laura, as their starting quarterback for the first time in program history. Two other true freshmen, Jeff Tuel and Drew Bledsoe, have started games for the school, but neither was the top choice coming out of preseason camp.
Granted, de Laura didn’t face stiff competition from a returning starter, let alone anyone who’d played a college snap, but Rolovich’s confidence in the Honolulu native has been clear from the get-go. After all, the new WSU coach was the first one to extend a scholarship to the Saint Louis High product, offering de Laura at Hawaii in 2018. The true freshman doesn’t have experience in a college football environment, but he’s the best bet to lead Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense – the same system de Laura’s high school used to win consecutive state championships.
Cooper, the lefty out of Lehi, Utah, also showed promise during preseason camp. Rolovich has hinted at using “a bunch” of quarterbacks this year, so the coach won’t hesitate to pull the plug on de Laura if things aren’t going well. Cruz, a redshirt freshman, was also highly touted as a high school prospect and could add a different dimension to the vertical passing game with his big arm.
Running backRB1: Max Borghi, Jr. (5-10, 198). RB2: Deon McIntosh, Sr. (6-0, 190). RB3: Jouvensly Bazil, RFr. (5-10, 185) or Clay Markoff, RSr. (5-9, 238)
It’s hard to imagine many would consider the Cougars when selecting the Pac-12’s top running back units, but WSU’s top two could have an intriguing case by the time the season ends. Formerly Air Raid backs, Borghi and McIntosh have embraced the change in offensive philosophy, realizing they’ll be running the ball more in Rolovich’s run-and-shoot scheme. Whereas the Air Raid used the pass to open up, well, more passes, the run-and-shoot goes to the air to create opportunities on the ground. Hawaii’s top running back, Miles Reed, logged 174 carries last season – just 15 fewer than Borghi has totaled in two seasons with the Cougars.
The productive junior from Colorado will be WSU’s bell cow after leading the Pac-12 in yards per carry last season. Borghi rushed for 3,512 yards in three years at Pomona High School and that total could have been more had it not been for an injury that ended his junior season prematurely. Now Borghi’s on a mission to prove to NFL scouts he can thrive as a run-first back, after displaying his skills as a pass-catcher under Mike Leach.
McIntosh, the former Notre Dame back who played second fiddle to Borghi in the Air Raid, should also have more opportunities to showcase his elusive running after totaling just 16 carries in 2019. Don’t be surprised if Rolovich also finds ways to use Bazil, an electric redshirt freshman, and Markoff, a bruising senior who missed last season due to injury.
Wide receiverX WR1: Calvin Jackson Jr., RSr. (5-10, 196) or Lucas Bacon, RSo. (6-2, 202)
H WR1: Travell Harris, Jr., RJr. (5-9, 180). WR 2: Billy Pospisil III, RFr. (5-10, 186)
Y WR1: Renard Bell, RSr. (5-8, 161). WR2: Joey Hobert, Fr. (5-11, 183)
Z WR1: Jamire Calvin, RJr. (5-10, 160). WR2: Jay Wilkerson, Fr. (6-1, 168)
That this could still be one of the top position groups on the teams in the wake of all the offseason attrition goes to show how strong the wide receiving corps had been under Leach.
The Cougars saw three of their top producers graduate (Dezmon Patmon, Easop Winston Jr., Brandon Arconado), then saw four others (Tay Martin, Rodrick Fisher, Kassidy Woods, Mike Pettway) leave the team for various reasons.
Yet WSU brings back four players who’ve caught 299 combined passes and accounted for 27 career touchdowns.
Calvin, Harris, Bell and Jackson could make up the smallest quartet of receivers in the conference (in the Power Five as well?), but the run-and-shoot is designed to get receivers open in space. More times than not, speed is a greater asset than size.
If those four show a solid understanding of the run-and-shoot route trees, and manage to stay healthy, Rolovich may not have to reach too far down his depth chart.
Unlike Leach, he tends to play four receivers without much rotation, which is what allowed three Hawaii players to crack 1,000 yards last season.
It’s inevitable that more than four receivers will see field time, of course, so keep an eye on the true freshman, Hobert, and Donovan Ollie, who could be an imposing threat on the outside at 6-foot-3, 209 pounds, if the Cougars need someone to win a 50/50 ball.
Offensive lineLT1: Liam Ryan, RSr. (6-5, 300). LT2: Ma’ake Fifita, RFr. (6-5, 305)
LG1: Jarrett Kingston, RSo. (6-5, 296). LG2: Blake McDonald, RSo. (6-5, 306)
C1: Brian Greene, RJr. (6-3, 300). C2: Konner Gomness, RFr. (6-4, 299)
RG1: Josh Watson, RSr. (6-4, 285). RG2: Hunter Mayginnes, RSo. (6-5, 308)
RT1: Abraham Lucas, Jr. (6-7, 328). RT2: Cade Beresford, RSo. (6-7, 300)
Pound for pound, it’s been billed as the top unit on this football team, although the specialists might have something to say about that. No different than the Air Raid, WSU’s offensive linemen will need to be effective pass-blockers, but they’re diversifying their portfolios this year with the added emphasis of a run game. It means tighter splits in most situations and more opportunities to use their athleticism in space – something just about every lineman has expressed enthusiasm for.
The core trio consists of Ryan, Lucas and Watson – two of whom make up the four-player captain pool. All three are three-year starters and their experience blocking for Pac-12 record-holders Luke Falk, Gardner Minshew and Anthony Gordon should help make life easier for de Laura, if he’s able to lock down the starting job permanently.
Ryan was a reliable pass-blocker who cut down on his penalties toward the end of his first season starting at right tackle. Watson is a steady Eddie who has probably deserved more recognition than he’s received. Lucas is a 6-7 behemoth at right tackle who could have a higher ceiling than Andre Dillard, now playing in the NFL.
The Cougars are making a change at center, where former walk-on Brian Greene fills in for longtime starter Fred Mauigoa, and will replace Rob Valencia at right guard with Jarrett Kingston, who, like Greene, was groomed to be a future starter and got on the field often last season as a backup.
Defense Defensive lineEdge 1: Willie Taylor III, Jr., RJr. (6-4, 232) or Brennan Jackson, RSo. (6-4, 249)
DT1: Dallas Hobbs, RJr. (6-6, 285) or Christian Mejia, RJr. (6-3, 285)
DT1: Amir Mujahid, Jr. (6-3, 278) or Ahmir Crowder, RSo. (6-3, 297)
Edge 1: Will Rodgers III, Sr. (6-4, 249) or Ron Stone Jr., RSo. (6-3, 234)
That there are four “ors” listed above suggests one of two things about WSU’s defensive line. The Cougars feel so good about their top eight options that designating actual starters and backups would be a disservice, or that four players haven’t truly emerged yet and coaches are struggling to decide who deserves the majority of the reps.
The Cougars would have you believe it’s the former. It could be, given that one player (Jackson) was injured last season, another (Mujahid) transferred from a junior college and two others (Crowder and Mejia) didn’t see much of the field given they were still underclassmen in 2019.
The first few games should offer a better glimpse of who the standouts are at “edge” and defensive tackle, but either way the Cougars will use a two-man rotation – or more – at each of the four positions.
Taylor is the most accomplished edge rusher on WSU’s roster, but didn’t make the jump many thought he might last season. Still, the Cougars’ all-conference right tackle, Lucas, considers him the best pass-rusher on the team, though Rodgers also has good experience. Stone is mature beyond his years and has shown strong leadership skills, while Jackson was touted throughout preseason camp and will finally have a chance to show what he’s made of.
Of the tackles, Hobbs is the only one with starting experience, registering a pair of sacks and 5½ tackles for loss. The departure of Lamonte McDougle is a definite hit, but it may also allow the Cougars to uncover an unknown gem in Mujahid, Crowder or Mejia.
LinebackerWeakside LB1: Jahad Woods, RSr. (6-1, 230). LB2: Dillon Sherman, RSr. (6-2, 219)
Middle LB1: Justus Rogers, RSr. (6-2, 232). LB2: Travion Brown, So. (6-3, 233)
Woods, Sherman and Rogers have been around for a while, all three getting their first taste of Pac-12 football as redshirt freshman, when WSU’s veteran linebacking corps was hit with injuries to Peyton Pelluer, Isaac Dotson and Nate DeRider. That trio should have taken a step forward in 2019, but like almost everything else on the defense, they regressed and will spend this year proving they can be one of the best in the division.
Defensive coordinator Jake Dickert has said he doesn’t want Woods leading the Pac-12 in tackles, which he would’ve done last year without Cal’s Evan Weaver in the conference.
In order to be effective, the Cougars can’t funnel everything to one player, as was the case in 2019, and the linebackers are key in improving the team’s overall run defense – Dickert’s top priority as the team’s first-year DC.
SecondaryNickel 1: Armani Marsh, RJr. (5-10, 177). Nickel 2: Halid Djibril, RSo. (6-1, 194)
CB1: George Hicks III, Sr. (6-0, 177) or Chau Smith-Wade, Fr. (5-11, 168)
FS1: Daniel Isom, Sr. (6-0, 199). FS2: Armauni Archie, RFr. (6-0, 176)
SS1: Tyrese Ross, So. (6-2, 181) or Chad Davis Jr., RJr. (6-2, 207)
CB1: Jaylen Watson, Jr. (6-3, 190) or Derrick Langford, Jr. (6-3, 190)
Schematically, WSU’s secondary will look similar, with one hybrid linebacker/defensive back known as the nickel, two cornerbacks and two safeties. In just about every other fact, Cougar fans will hope it looks much different than it did a year ago.
According to coaches and players, Marsh, the Spokane native and Gonzaga Prep graduate who walked on to the team in 2017, had a strong offseason and emerged as one of the secondary’s clear-cut leaders.
Hicks and Langford both had starting opportunities last season, but the infusion of two new players at cornerback should improve the position’s overall depth, as well as the quality. Smith-Wade had the best preseason camp of any freshman on defense and Watson was a two-time junior college All-American who’s well-built at 6-3, 190.
Not long after he arrived in Pullman, Rolovich decided to give Isom another opportunity with the program after the former JC transfer was dismissed by Leach for an undisclosed rules violation. He’s grown into a leadership role and received 36 votes when the team chose its four captains. Ross and Davis will take their position battle into Week 1, and the group as a whole will do its best to honor the memory of Bryce Beekman with its play this season.
Punter 1: Oscar Draguicevich III, RSr. (6-0, 182)
Kicker 1: Blake Mazza, RJr. (5-9, 183)
Long snapper: (FG) Tyler Williams, RSo. (6-3, 212) and (P) Simon Samarzich, So. (6-0, 204)
Kickoffs: Andrew Boyle, RFr. (6-2, 197) or Oscar Draguicevich III, RJr. (6-0, 182)
Punt returner 1: Travell Harris, RJr. (5-9, 180)
Kick returner 1: Travell Harris, RJr. (5-9, 180)
Rolovich and his staff have their hands full with the offense and defense, so perhaps it’s comforting to see two All-Pac-12-caliber specialists in Draguicevich and Mazza, not to mention one of the conference’s most electric return men in Harris.
Williams will snap for field goals and Samarzich for punts, while Boyle and Draguicevich vie for kickoff duties.
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