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Washington State mailbag: How does quarterback mobility factor into Nick Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense?

As we deliver the mailbag to you this morning, the equipment staff at Washington State is polishing helmets, pumping air in footballs and making last-second accommodations as the Cougars prepare to open preseason camp in Pullman.

A football season that once seemed dead in the water is now upon us.

We’ll have lots more coverage in the coming weeks, although it will be much different than usual. Still, you can look forward to postpractice interviews, depth-chart projections, human-interest stories and position previews as the Cougars ramp up toward the Nov. 7 season opener.

For now, the weekly mailbag:

Curious about Rolo’s view on running ability of his QB. Leach frowned upon it. Curious on his views and its importance in his offense.

- @teamconquerlyme

First off, I’d correct your assertion that Leach frowned upon quarterbacks who could run the ball. No, it wasn’t the first, second or third thing he focused on when recruiting the position, but Gardner Minshew’s ability to get outside the pocket and make plays with his feet was certainly a welcome addition to the Air Raid in 2018. Minshew was sacked 11 times in 2018, whereas Luke Falk was sacked 39 times the year prior. Remember, Leach lured an extremely mobile grad transfer to Pullman in Eastern Washington’s Gage Gubrud, then signed Jayden de Laura, who rushed for 345 yards and eight touchdowns as a high school senior.

But I know your question was centered more around Rolovich’s preferences. Yes, the ability to not only make things happen outside the pocket, but also succeed in designed QB run sets are both essential components to the run-and-shoot offense he’s bringing to Pullman.

I’d point to Hawaii’s stat book from 2018 and ’19, the two years the Rainbow Warriors were using the run-and-shoot. In 2018, Hawaii’s QB, Cole McDonald, led the team in rushing attempts (134), tied for the team lead in rushing TDS (four) and was third with 359 rushing yards. Last year, McDonald and Chevan Cordeiro combined for 595 net rushing yards. For context, WSU’s QBs had minus-949 rushing yards in Leach’s eight seasons and had only one season – Minshew’s 2018 campaign – in which the QB was a plus in net rushing yards.

The stats back up the presumption that QB runs will be a big component, but the timing of your question is good because offensive coordinator Brian Smith also touched on it during a radio appearance on 920-AM Saturday.

“You want to use your personnel to the best of their ability,” Smith said. “If you’ve got kind of a slow-footed kid back there, you don’t want to get him killed trying to force him to run the ball.

“The next thing is, a lot of our quarterbacks are athletic and do have that ability, and when you are a 10-personnel spread team, having that quarterback run dimension is important.

“It allows you to control a sixth defender who may be getting kind of sneaky toward the box. It fits in with some of our RPO run stuff, too, but the Q runs in third-down situations and end of game situations has been really successful for us and important to our success.”

Weather will likely be poor at the home games. Does he plan to run the ball more than his usual game plan?

- John S.

The Cougars haven’t played a regular-season game in December since 2002, the final year of the Mike Price era, when they visited UCLA, winning 48-27 at the Rose Bowl before returning to the venue about a month later for the Rose Bowl game.

But if you browse through the season-by-season portion of WSU’s football media guide, you’ll find the Cougars have never hosted a regular-season game during December.

Frankly, conditions are so poor during bowl prep, WSU tends to move things inside its practice bubble. And the bubble was already a last-resort option, as is.

Whether the conditions influence WSU’s play calling, I imagine other factors will play a larger role: personnel, opponent, game flow.

As I pondered this question, I reverted back to the 2019 Mountain West Conference championship game, played in early December between Rolovich’s Hawaii team and Boise State at Albertsons Stadium in downtown Boise.

The Rainbow Warriors had 26 rushing attempts in that game, just two off their season average. I’m not sure precipitation was a factor, but I’ve also spent time in Boise during December, and covered a late-December bowl game on the blue turf. It gets slippery. Real slippery.

If conditions reach the extremes of the 2018 Apple Cup, though, I could certainly see Rolovich putting the ball in Max Borghi’s hands more, as Borghi will be the top strength of the offense anyway. Given that his offense is more multidimensional than Leach’s, and more functional on the ground, Rolovich, I imagine, won’t be as reluctant to change things up if the conditions or opponent dictate he needs to.

Theo, will you be able to cover practice?

- John Y.

As it is almost everywhere this fall, practice access will be extremely limited if not nonexistent.

WSU hasn’t announced what its media policy will look like for fall camp, but UW announced reporters can only view the first 20 minutes of practice on three Fridays over the course of the next month. Honestly, that may be more access than we have in Pullman.

Fortunately, we’ll still get the same, or close to the same, opportunities to interview coaches and players after practice through Zoom.

But I guess this is a forewarning. If you ask me how “X” player has looked through “X” amount of days of camp, I won’t know. If you ask me who has the edge in the quarterback battle, I’ll only be able to relay that question to Rolovich. If you ask me which position groups appear the strongest or weakest, I won’t have too much clarity there, either.

I guess in some ways, we’re all in this together. You’ll still have lots of questions by the time the season opener rolls around and so will I.

I can hope some of those are answered Nov. 7 in Corvallis.