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Washington State mailbag: Gauging the progress of new offensive/defensive systems in Pullman, and how will uniforms be chosen this year?

UPDATED: Sun., Nov. 15, 2020

Given what we saw last year from Washington State’s defense, it would be almost preposterous to think that group would be a step ahead of the highly productive offense come Nov. 7, when the Cougars open the season at Oregon State.

Yet, there’s at least one person with a fair amount of knowledge of the football happenings on the Palouse – and practice access – who suspects Jake Dickert’s unit may be carrying Nick Rolovich’s in Corvallis, Oregon, or something along those lines.

Impossible, right?

This certainly falls into the see-it-to-believe-it category, and since, for the time being, I’m unable to see anything other than short practice clips occasionally sent to media after practices, I’ll resort to the next best thing: hypothesizing via the weekly mailbag.

We address that question and a handful of others this week.

With new systems on both sides of the ball, who do you think will be further along on Nov. 7?

- Jennifer D.

If I hadn’t listened to athletic director Pat Chun’s radio appearance with Matt Chazanow, Alex Brink, Jessamyn McIntyre and Derek Deis a few weekends ago, I’d unequivocally say the offense. But Chun said something that took me aback.

“This might be the rare year for us as Cougs since the start of whatever the Mike Leach era was, the defense may be ahead of the offense when we come to Game 1 the way they’ve been looking,” Chun said.

Now, Chun may not have the same perspective as someone on WSU’s coaching staff, and I haven’t cross-checked his assertion with Rolovich, but he’s certainly been at Rogers Field more than I have this fall. Could he be on to something? I’m sure most of you reading this hope so.

I’m still more inclined to think the offense will be more polished when the season opens in Corvallis. Both units face learning curves, but it seems the offense may have more of a head start, based on the previously documented similarities between the Air Raid and run-and-shoot, as well as the personnel returning on that side of the ball: Liam Ryan, Abe Lucas, Max Borghi and all those receivers.

The Cougars ranked No. 7 nationally in total offense last year. In total defense they were No. 111. But, again, if Chun’s right, this season could go much better than most expect it will.

Who’s getting the most QB1 reps?

- @boonasty8807

I’m jotting down the answer to this question on Wednesday afternoon, presuming it won’t change Thursday or Friday, while also realizing there’s a better-than-average chance it could. Not that we’d know, regardless.

As far as I can tell, the quarterback reps are still being divided evenly between Cammon Cooper, Gunner Cruz and Jayden de Laura. Does that mean 33% for Cooper, 33% for Cruz and 33% for de Laura? I’m not certain that’s the case, and it seems as though Rolovich is using the same approach Leach employed each of the last two years, when three QBs were in the running for the job.

If that’s the case, Cooper and Cruz, for example, might be featured on Monday. Then Cruz and de Laura on Tuesday and Cooper and de Laura on Wednesday. What is clear is the Cougars haven’t narrowed down the search to just two players, or hadn’t as of Monday, when we spoke with offensive coordinator Brian Smith on the postpractice Zoom call.

While it’s key to identify a starter, Smith stressed the importance of preparing all three QBs. Ensuring that Cooper, Cruz and de Laura each have an adequate understanding of the offense at this point is more important than hoping one gains a mastery of it before Nov. 7.

“With the nature of a COVID season, in our mind we have to try to develop all those kids to be able to play for us,” Smith said. “So I think you’re going to continue to see that whole group continue to get reps in practice and continue to work to get better. And obviously, you would love to say one of those guys is your starter and he’s really pulling away from everybody else and you can focus on that one kid a little more, but we’ve got to be ready to win games with all three of those kids.”

Do you know if coach Rolovich has done anything to promote or help our student-athletes vote during this election?

- Jeremy B.

Rolovich, more than other coaches in the conference/around the country, spends a lot of time talking about the significance molding his players away from the gridiron. I have to think it’s been addressed – probably on more than one occasion.

Either way, I figure more than a handful of WSU football players will be getting to the booth on Election Day. They won’t have many excuses not to, and not only because classes are being taught online this fall.

In mid-September, after multiple athletic departments – Gonzaga’s being one of those – announced they’d cancel athletic activities on Nov. 3 to allow student-athletes to vote, the NCAA adopted legislation that prohibits programs from holding practices, workouts or competition on the first Tuesday after Nov. 1 every year.

The Cougars will enjoy a rare day off four days before their Nov. 7 season opener at Oregon State. Rolovich, I’m sure, will encourage them to make the most of it.

Why no catches for Jamire Calvin or Calvin Jackson Jr. in scrimmage?

- Doug D.

I found this somewhat startling, too, but after our chat with Smith on Monday, I wouldn’t read into it all that much.

Smith was asked about Jackson’s scrimmage production, or lack thereof, in the team’s first scrimmage. It’s possible he wasn’t targeted, it’s possible he was targeted and didn’t make the most of his opportunities, but it’s also possible coaches didn’t need to see Jackson as much as they did a few of his younger backups.

“Calvin’s a veteran and that presence has been great,” Smith said. “As far as the stats in the scrimmage, a lot of times in the scrimmage, we’re trying to get certain things called to see things for certain guys. Another kid you didn’t see much of in the stat sheet was Deon McIntosh, and he was someone that really got a good chunk of carries in our first live period we did our first day in pads a few days ago. So, just because someone didn’t necessarily get a good amount of stats in that scrimmage, doesn’t mean they aren’t doing well for us.”

Who are some defensive tackles to keep an eye on? This was a thin position in our previous 3-4 defense but now in a 4-2-5 we need more of these space eaters.

- Casey F.

Well, not Lamonte McDougle. Maybe not Dallas Hobbs, either.

Next to Will Rodgers III, who’s sliding over to the new “edge” position, McDougle and Hobbs are the only nose tackle/defensive tackle types on the roster with any starting experience. That was important for a unit that also lost Misiona Aiolupotea-Pei.

Rolovich has declined to name WSU’s opt outs, but we haven’t seen McDougle in any of the team’s photos or videos to this point, and I find it peculiar Hobbs hasn’t been invited to the lectern for any postpractice interviews to this point. The Cougars used him frequently last season, and often after emotional losses – one of the first signs, in my opinion, he’d emerged as a leader and spokesperson of the defense. Hobbs posted a photo of his practice helmet three days into camp, so I’m more inclined to think he hasn’t fully opted out.

But let’s assume for the sake of this question McDougle and Hobbs aren’t part of the equation. That leaves the Cougars with a group that includes redshirt juniors Christian Mejia and Jesus Echevarria, redshirt sophomore Ahmir Crowder, redshirt freshmen Tyler Garay-Harris and Nicholas Sheetz, and true freshman Nathaniel James.

Nobody there has much game experience, although Mejia, Sheetz and Echevarria did get some action in 2019, and James has drawn rave reviews from coaches during preseason camp. Even if McDougle and Hobbs aren’t part of the equation, the Cougars, it seems, aren’t lacking bodies. What are those bodies capable of? Nobody quite knows that year and Nov. 7 should be fairly telling.

Who will make the decision about the uniform combo each game?

- Brad

Brad, I’m glad you asked this question. I wouldn’t have had an answer for you earlier in the week, but incidentally this came up during Rolovich’s postpractice Zoom call Wednesday evening.

From what it sounds like, uniform choices will be left to the team’s leadership council, which Rolovich described as a group of “guys who coaches thought had some influence but also did things the right way.” He named few of the players on the leadership council – Ryan, Borghi, Jahad Woods – but indicated the program would release some sort of graphic at some point revealing the entire group.

“Anything from uniforms or, ‘Hey guys, I’d rather you guys do this,’ ” Rolovich said. “Maybe the locker room needs a little bit of a check right now as far as cleanliness. Basically pushing this toward a player-run program, is probably the main goal.”

Does that mean the council will decide on every uniform combo? I’m not 100% sure. It does sound like the group will have some sort of influence, though.

Now, let’s see who made it to the bottom of the mailbag. If you’re still reading, tweet me a new jersey combination, or combinations, you’d like to see the Cougars wear this fall. I’ll acknowledge with a retweet. Any takers for white helmet, crimson jersey, white pants?

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