During a virtual Pac-12 Conference media event Wednesday, first-year Washington State coach Nick Rolovich discussed the impending season, including his thoughts on potential 9 a.m. kickoffs, the Cougars’ quarterback competition, coaching amid unusual circumstances and WSU’s place in the preseason media poll.
Below is everything Rolovich during his 26-minute webinar with reporters.
What are your thoughts on the prospect of 9 a.m. kickoffs?
Rolovich: “I’m not necessarily a fan. I mean I get it. Especially with the new testing that we’ve got to get done, and I know we can possibly do that at night. I’m not sure where that idea’s at. But you’re talking about have a pregame meal at 5 a.m. I get where it can help your TV, but as far as the kids I’m not sure that’s the best thing we want to do. I wouldn’t necessarily be a fan of it.”
How realistic is it the Pac-12 champion will end up in the playoff this year, given the length of the schedule?
Rolovich: “Good question. I think we did the right thing. Of course we all want to be playing already. We’d be four or five games in already, but some of the stuff we had to deal with where our conference is located, some of the regulations some of our guys had, I think we did the best job we could and if somebody runs through it, I think people would want to see (them) in the playoffs. But that’s not a huge thing I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, to be honest, but I would think so. It’s 2020. It’s different.”
As someone who came in from outside the conference, what’s your feeling about the national perception of the Pac-12?
Rolovich: “The tradition in this conference, especially for me growing up on the West Coast, I have a very positive view of the Pac-12. Especially for a lot of kids on the Pac-12, that was some of the dream schools, those were some of the dream games when you’re talking about the Rose Bowl, you talk about all those things. Then I think we’ve got good players, but I think if you take the coaches – not only the head coaches, I think there’s excellent coaches throughout this conference and with tradition. I’m honored to be part of it.”
Have you ever entered a season with no returning snaps at quarterback?
Rolovich: “None that I really remember. Probably in some of the JC years we did it. But it’s probably a fairly unique situation. But they’re working. They’ve all got things they need to work on to get better as a group, but even some of the stuff now I see a lot of improvement from when we first got to see them and I think (Craig Stutzmann) has done a really good job mentoring them and bringing them along. And like I said, what I think the offense gives these kids is an opportunity to be effective with it in their own skillset and mentality. So, some concepts some guys might like to throw, some might not be as comfortable with it and that comes down to us understanding that. And the guy who’s playing, put him in the best opportunity to be successful, which will then lead our team to be successful. So, probably short answer is I don’t necessarily remember one, but it could’ve happened. These guys are hard workers, which is going to give us a chance.”
Does that change your preparation, not having an experienced QB?
“I think the shortened practice time has changed our philosophy more than anything. What are we going to get good at? What are we going to concentrate on? And this is hard for every coach. Even when you’re in a regular, normal year, all you do is sit around in the office and talk football. These kids go to school, they go to practice, but they’ve got other stuff going on. And Dan Morrison, my quarterbacks coach in college and another great one. What he said, it’s not what you know – you may be great in a clinic – but it’s really what your players know. And I think I’ve harped on our guys on all three sides of the ball. Let’s understand not only the time frame we have, but also the outside things that are going on in this world that are affecting our guys. So, bringing them together as a team, doing it for each other, that’s important. But it is something I think we need to be more conscious of this year, not necessarily because of them not having snaps, but because of the shortened preparation time.”
I heard the phrase, “this team’s got to learn how to win” a lot. Do you believe in that as a general concept and if so, how do you do it?
Rolovich: “I believe in that. I think where a lot of our focus is on situational football. Not just third down, but what’s the proper way to take a knee in certain situations? But I think it starts with learning how to practice, taking care of each other, knowing when it’s time to really compete. But getting the idea iron sharpens iron, that mindset, it starts in practice. As far as the phrase you brought up, I just tend to harp on doing it for each other and showing it’s important to you. I think there’s plays in every practice, in every game or maybe every lifting session where you can be around a guy and you can say, it’s important to that guy. And I tend to, when I see those opportunities, I try to point that out to the team, I try to take advantage of that. It not only celebrates somebody who we think is doing everything the way we’d like them to, it also shows the rest of the guys one, we have our eyes open to it and it gets them into, what can I do better to show them it’s important to me, too. But teaching them how to win is partly teaching them how to believe in themselves.”
If you come to a place where they haven’t won, how do you teach them how to win before they win?
Rolovich: “Well I think this program has had some pretty good success these last few years. This team knew how to work when I got here. That was evident in the weight room. They weren’t afraid of hard work, they probably had more quote unquote, blue-collar style to them, which I enjoy coaching. Some things just aren’t as important as other programs or maybe places. But I think they know how to win, because a lot of them have done it here. But it’s about winning every day, especially talking about quarterbacks. Every step you take, you’re taking it as a quarterback of this football program, so start to live that life.”
How does the preseason scouting process change in a year like this where you don’t have any nonconference games?
Rolovich: “It was pretty interesting throughout. I think the Pac-12, a lot of this stuff behind the scenes, nobody got to see the work that was done as the situation was so fluid. OK, we have this schedule and this schedule, maybe this one or this one. And yeah it was a pain to some extent to, now okay you could open with this guy or this guy. But it was a lot of work being done behind the scenes of the Pac-12 with the schedule, so as things changed, once we went conference-only we had a chance to focus on teams in the conference with some of the new coordinators we’re going to see. I wish I could just give you guys a timeline, but especially when we got to playing the North and one crossover, and we’d done some work on these teams anyway, so I think we got a good opportunity. The problem is, you don’t get to necessarily see how your team is against another opponent until you get into conference, so that may be a little bit different.”
Do you have a sense of what your strengths could be at this point?
Rolovich: “Well, just off playing time and the veterans in the group. The O-line, I think Max (Borghi) has proven he’s a more than functional player in this conference. The receivers have had production. Getting the quarterback in place is going to be one of our focuses. Ana part of our smooth transition offensively has been the willingness for the players to – because they’ve played in a great offense that was productive and put up points. We’ve had very little, well why we don’t we do this the best way we did it last year. We’ve had a high level of buy in and that’s made it, not only smooth but I think even giving us a chance to be ahead of where we thought we were if we didn’t have to deal with that. So, defensively I think the structure Jake Dickert brings…he does a nice job running that side of the ball and the guys, they know they’re going to get coaches every snap, every chance him and the guys on that defensive staff get. They are coaching, they’re talking to them and I think they’ve earned some trust, I think they know we care about them as people and it’s been definitely a unique journey. The hard part for me is not being able to get around them as much in person. You can do so much through text or electronic communication or Zooms and all that stuff, but the real connection I think is done in person. So that’s why I think getting to practice and getting into some of those situations will be important in dialing up our program chemistry, not just team chemistry.”
How will you divide the QB reps these first few weeks and what’s your timeline for naming a starter?
Rolovich: “I think the end deadline is Friday Nov. 6. I don’t know that I have necessarily a plan that we’ve got to get a starter by this time. I’d like to see as soon as somebody separates – I know that’s not the answer you want, but when it’s time to announce a starter, I think we should feel comfortable to do that. Want to get guys all types of reps, even if they’re with the No. 1 O-line, but still how do they do with the No. 2 O-line, and give them all sorts of opportunities to show what they can do with all different groups of personnel they get to work with. I don’t think it’s much different for us offensively where three guys get the majority of the reps, because we’ve got four and Victor Gabalis is doing a great job. He’s learning and I think he’ll be somebody we can count on. I don’t think he’ll necessarily get the amount of reps, and if he jumps up and he’s the starter, he’ll be the starter. With three guys getting the majority of the reps, at some point early in camp I think we’ll have enough evidence to name a starter. In a perfect world, right, you’d give them two weeks before the first game. But this is not going to be probably one of those perfect scenarios and this could go game to game, too. Obviously with injuries, that always happens, but as far as quarterback development, a guy could come on in week two or three of practice and we’ve got to make the move. The one thing I think we’ve shown as an offensive staff is we’re going to play the guy we think is going to win the game for us. Caught a lot of stuff for playing Chevain Cordeiro when Cole McDonald was having a great season for us. I just felt that week, versus that defense with what was going on with our team, Chevain was going to give us the best chance to win. It’s a hard conversation and it’s nothing that Cole did. Cole did wonderful things for us in the offense for multiple years at Hawaii. At least we have a track record, if a guy’s not getting it done for us, we’ll pull him and that fosters competition not only through training camp but through the whole season.”
Is there any inclination to use this season in a way to lay the foundation for the future, especially with eligibility not counting?
Rolovich: “And lose? We don’t want to lose.”
I don’t mean and lose, but maybe give some experience to some guys you wouldn’t have in a normal season.
Rolovich: “Well, I think we’ve got to be ready to that in a normal season with all the COVID stuff that could hit. We have to bring everybody along and expect multiple people to play. Kind of goes in line with the yearlong competition between players in certain position groups, or all position groups. I don’t think this fanbase deserves for us to – I don’t know how we want to put it – tone it down and prepare for the future. I just don’t think that’s a good way to live your life. We’re going to try to do our best, win every game we line up for with the guys who are able to line up that day. That’s football, that’s what makes it one of the greatest games in the world. I don’t see the strategy in doing something like that, when you’ve been given the faith of the administration, the university and more importantly the alums of the university, but also the alums of the football program. I don’t think they’d appreciate that at all, and they’re the ones that laid the bricks when they didn’t get a snack pack every time they came to the weight room. That wouldn’t roll with those guys. They would probably feel disrespected and I would, too.”
You guys were picked last today in the media poll. How does that hit you and how does that hit the team?
Rolovich: “I hope they don’t care, but I don’t think we’ll even address it. Not that you guys don’t know what you’re talking about, but so many things can happen in a season and I think there’s so many unknowns. … I get we’ve got to do it and it’s fine. It works great for me, it’s just added motivation that we can give to our guys. But we’ve been picked last before in places I’ve been.”
We’ve seen a lot of upsets in college football. What are the advantages for a team that’s likely to be an underdog?
Rolovich: “I think you’re on to something. Everyone’s had abnormal prep in whatever ways they had to deal with, but this is an opportunity for us to jump in and make some real noise. I see it as a complete opportunity — I didn’t necessarily want to take that stance publicly with you guys, but I’ve already done that. But for our team? Guys, it’s 60 minutes of football. Everyone’s getting the same amount of training camp, there’s six or seven games and it’s about who gets hot and who stays together and who believes they can win. Early on, you might get on a roll and who knows what’s going to happen. This isn’t a three-month deal. It’s who’s hot and who’s playing well at that time. Who’s probably not been negatively impacted by injuries. Those things just lead to enthusiasm, optimism from our coaching staff. Not necessarily something I’ve brought up with the players, but why not us, why not now? I see this as a good of a chance of anything to jump on people, especially if you’re picked last, jump on people. Pounce on people. Sorry.”
Can you talk about the decision to have nobody wear Bryce Beekman’s No. 26 this season?
Rolovich: “Because we believe he’s still with us and will have an effect on how we move forward this season. I think it’s hopefully it’s a tribute to him and his life and his family. I think that also can be hard to wear that number after a tough deal this team’s gone through. I think that’s the right thing to do, not only for Bryce and his family and his remembrance, but not to put that on some of the guys that are on the team right now. We feel like it was the right thing to do.”
What have the challenges been for you to come into a program like Washington State and build it? How do you build a new program?
Rolovich: “I think one of the first steps is to assess where the players’ mindset is early on when you get here. I tend to do things in a positive manner with trust, openness, transparency. There’s a little bit more that comes on not necessarily the outside, but getting used to people not only doing the right thing. It’s okay to be great, it’s okay to be great if you’re the janitor that comes in, or it’s okay to be great when you’re walking down to the stadium and you see a water bottle left just pick it up. Because, it’s about a unified pride in this university and I think Cougar alums have that inherently built in, but it’s pushing people to be even better. It’s the biggest program I’ve had the opportunity to run, so the administration and myself and the staff aligning for the goals moving forward. I don’t necessarily want to lead any program with a huge amount of fear, but I still think it’s okay to have some intrinsic motivation go be great and be part of something that’s bigger than yourself, even more than the team. Whether it’s facilities or academics, if we show a togetherness throughout athletics, I think it spills over into the university and it’s kind of getting all those ships to rise and be the best we can be. I try not to let opportunities to by where that isn’t pointed out to some of these guys. I can’t do it Mike Leach’s way, I can’t do it Mike Price’s way. You’ve got to be yourself and you’ve got to do it your way, and as long as you have good values and care about these kids, then I think if you have good football knowledge and are able to teach, I think you give yourself a chance.”
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