It may not be that Nick Rolovich didn’t understand the premise of the question. He just didn’t agree with it.
During the Pac-12’s virtual media day held last Wednesday, Rolovich was asked if Washington State, picked to finish last in the North division, would be more inclined to use the truncated, conference-only 2020 season as an opportunity to build for the future, rather than gun for an unlikely championship.
“I know you guys are in a competitive environment and want to win every game,” the reporter started, “but the unique nature of the season, you don’t have a QB right now…”
Rolovich interrupted: “We’ve got QBs. We’ve got QBs.”
The implication, of course, was the Cougars don’t have a returning starter at quarterback, and on the heels of Anthony Gordon’s departure, will be one of five Pac-12 schools ushering in a new signal-caller this season. But, even with nearly half the league bringing in new faces, WSU is confronted with an especially unconventional situation.
Just look across the conference.
Oregon is replacing Rose Bowl-winning QB Justin Herbert but returns backup Tyler Shough, who was once the country’s sixth-rated pro style QB. The Ducks also have a solid insurance policy in Boston College grad transfer Anthony Brown. Utah welcomes in South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley to replace Tyler Huntley and Washington has Kevin Thompson, a productive Big Sky QB at Sacramento State, as an option if the younger signal-callers don’t pan out.
Since snaps themselves aren’t necessarily recorded, here’s how many returning pass attempts each of WSU’s 11 conference foes have: Arizona State (310), Arizona (185), California (625), Colorado (6), Oregon (695), Oregon State (60), Stanford (280), UCLA (556), USC (498), Utah (1,011), UW (596).
Then there’s WSU (0).
“None that I really remember,” Rolovich said when asked if he could recall coaching a team that didn’t have a returning snap at the QB position. “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 (QB coach Craig Stutzmann) has done a really good job mentoring them and bringing them along.”
A critic might offer this counterargument: how do the 60 career pass attempts by OSU’s Tristan Gebbia, or the mere six by Colorado’s Tyler Lytle, give those schools a vast advantage over WSU in terms of experience?
It’s somewhat valid, but those players, as well as others around the league, spent the majority of the 2019 campaign as primary backup options to older starters. Meaning, more time around the No. 1 offensive unit, more reps in practice/scrimmage scenarios, more film cut-ups to gloss over and more coaching to be had.
Because of the seniority in WSU’s QB room last season, the Cougars’ two returning signal-callers, redshirt sophomore Cammon Cooper and redshirt freshman Gunner Cruz, were buried behind a trio of seniors – Gordon, Trey Tinsley and Gage Gubrud – and, outside of Thursday Night Football scrimmages designated for young players, seldom had the opportunity to sharpen their skills.
Cooper and Cruz return as two of the four candidates to replace Gordon as WSU’s starting QB, while the others are highly-touted freshman Jayden de Laura and walk-on Victor Gabalis.
After three days of preseason camp, there isn’t a clear pecking order, or really anything resembling one, but all four players are getting opportunities to lead Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense, and if the abbreviated time frame allows for it, the coach would love to have a starter nailed down with two weeks to spare before WSU opens at Oregon State on Nov. 7.
“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,” Rolovich said. “… 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.”
Rolovich does has a history of swapping QBs midseason. A successful one, too. Last year at Hawaii, senior Cole McDonald entered the season as the Rainbow Warriors’ offensive general, leading them to a 6-5 record in his 11 starts, including wins over Pac-12 foes Arizona and Oregon State. One of the losses came at UW, while two of the other four came to MWC champion/No. 23 Boise State. But Rolovich shuffled the deck during Mountain West play – and ruffled some feathers on the island – when he inserted Chevan Cordeiro because the freshman conceivably matched up better against San Jose State, UNLV and Army. Hawaii then went 3-0 in those games.
“It’s a hard conversation and it’s nothing that Cole did,” Rolovich said. “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.”
The coach may have that luxury in Pullman, too, especially with Cooper, Cruz and de Laura, who seem to balance each other out in a way that could be beneficial to the offense as a whole.
De Laura, who’s 6-0, has elite athleticism and a well-documented background in the run-and-shoot schemes that have gained popularity among high schools on the south shore of Oahu. Cruz, who’s 6-5, has a cannon arm and an extroverted personality that endears him to his teammates and coaches. Cooper, who’s 6-4, is probably more skilled as a thrower than de Laura, probably more skilled as a runner than Cruz, and has the benefit of two years in a college locker room, where he’s learned under Pac-12 record-holders such as Gordon and Gardner Minshew.
All three QBs were wildly productive the last time they played in a competitive setting as high school seniors and have state championship rings that validate their success at the prep level.
As a senior, De Laura completed 228 of 319 passes for 3,452 yards and 29 TDs, rushing for 345 yards and eight TDs. In 2019, he led Honolulu’s St. Louis High, the same school that produced Marcus Mariota and Tua Tagovailoa, to a 12-0 mark and a state championship.
Cruz completed 240 of 327 passes for 3,598 yards and 20 TDs, with 277 yards and 14 TDs on the ground his final season. In 2017, Arizona’s Casteel High won the school’s first state championship behind Cruz’s right arm.
And Cooper’s senior campaign? The record-breaking lefty was 331 of 523 for 4,726 yards and 58 TDs. He had another 171 rushing yards with seven TDs, en route to a 12-2 record at Utah’s Lehi High and state championship.
Rolovich did his best to evaluate all three QBs after the team’s first practice Friday.
On de Laura: “(He’s) kind of in that Joey Hobert (mold), a lot of those same characteristics, where the lights aren’t too big for him at this level. I think he knows why he came here and is kind of reveling in the opportunity.”
On Cruz: “I think Gunner is a very outspoken leader. He’s very dialed in on a lot of the mechanical stuff, as far as the offense goes. Not talking throwing mechanics, I’m just taking about all the mechanical things. I think he’s very encouraging.”
On Cooper: “Everyone’s got a little bit different personality, and that’s okay. I think Cam has shown confidence, I think he’s shown he wants to be the guy. I think he’s had some nice deep ball throws, nice touch on the ball.”
The next day, Rolovich followed up on his comment about Cooper’s personality.
“I’m just a firm believer that different quarterbacks can be successful,” Rolovich said. “Now there’s some common things you want: strong leadership, extreme care, good interpersonal relationships with the receivers, especially, and the offensive line. … Everyone doesn’t have to be the same. Some guys will like different throws, some like different concepts.
“I’ll try to improve certain qualities of peoples’ personality, but some people are just wired a certain way and that’s not able to be changed.”
On Saturday, Rolovich noted de Laura’s had an easier time “getting into his drop,” based on experience playing in St. Louis’ run-and-shoot system. The coach was reluctant to say if any of his QBs have been more consistent or effective moving the offense after Sunday’s practice – the third in as many days – and players seemed to back up that assertion.
“I’m seeing glimpses of greatness from all of them,” wide receiver Jamire Calvin said. “They’re all repping with the ones, so there’s nobody that’s kind of a front-runner or anything like that. … They all have talent, they all can throw, they all can do the things we need them to do.”
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