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Sports >  WSU football

Jaylen Watson, Cougars crank up physicality with full pads: Notes and observations from day six of Washington State preseason camp

Aug. 12, 2021 Updated Thu., Aug. 12, 2021 at 5:19 p.m.

Washington State freshman wide receiver Tsion Nunnally, left, battles Cougars sophomore defensive back Chau Smith-Wade during preseason practice last Friday at Rogers Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State freshman wide receiver Tsion Nunnally, left, battles Cougars sophomore defensive back Chau Smith-Wade during preseason practice last Friday at Rogers Field in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Washington State will hold 25 preseason practices before opening the season Sept. 4 against Utah State. The Spokesman-Review will be in attendance for each of those, tracking the relevant storylines, notes, depth chart developments and key plays as the Cougars ramp up to the 2021 football season. Below are observations from the sixth day of fall camp in Pullman.

The notes

  • On Thursday, midway through WSU’s sixth preseason practice, the Pac-12 Conference announced its forfeiture policy for games this season. According to the policy, “if an institution is unable to play a contest through its own fault, it shall forfeit such contest to its opponent.” In other words, teams left unable to play because of COVID-19-related absences will forfeit, as opposed to last season when a canceled games was considered no-contest. WSU coach Nick Rolovich, who’s drawn heavy scrutiny for his decision not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, offered this observation on the forfeiture policy after Thursday’s practice: “I think we’ve just got to get the games played. That’s the main thing here. It’s put in because we want to do the right things and stay healthy so we can get these games in for everybody. Fans, the universities, the Pac-12. All that stuff. I think we learned a lot after what we all went through last year.”

The team’s starting wide receiver corps hasn’t been settled, especially as Travell Harris continues to work through an injury, but three or four players have consistently taken the lion’s share of first-team reps.

  • Those include De’Zhaun Stribling (Z), Joey Hobert (H), Calvin Jackson Jr. and Donovan Ollie/CJ Moore (Z).

Deon McIntosh, Max Borghi, Nakia Watson, Jaylen Watson and Harris all spent time on kickoff return during a brief special teams period near the end of practice.

Both kickers, Andre Boyle and Dean Janikowski, got field-goal practice with teammates watching on near the end of practice. Boyle and Janikowski each hit a field goal that was estimated at 20-30 yards before both connecting from 40-plus.

As mentioned in the last practice report, linebacker Jahad Woods went down after a hard collision near the end of the 11-on-11 period and spent a few minutes on the turf before slowly walking off the practice field. Woods didn’t practice Wednesday, and Rolovich said the All-Pac-12 LB would be “down a couple days.”

  • A larger-than-usual contingent of WSU players didn’t participate or was absent from Thursday’s practice. That included Woods, cornerback Chris Jackson, wide receiver Lincoln Victor, cornerback Chau Smith-Wade, linebacker Ben Wilson, defensive back Jackson Lataimua, “edge” Marquise Freeman and offensive linemen Patrick Utschinski, James McNorton, Devin Kylany and Dylan Mayginnes.
  • Running backs Jouvensly Bazil and Dylan Paine were limited participants and worked with strength coaches behind the end zone. Wide receiver Harris was still limited in his participation, but more involved than he’d been in previous days.

    • Smoke from regional wildfires began to pollute the air on the Palouse on Thursday. Pullman’s air quality wasn’t as severe as it was in Spokane, but smoke continued to seep into the Rogers Field practice area as the 2


    • -hour practice session progressed.

    Not necessarily because of air quality, the Cougars will hold Friday morning’s practice inside the indoor practice field adjacent to WSU’s baseball complex. With limited space in the bubble, the practice will be closed to reporters. Under Mike Leach, the Cougars would typically hold a lighter walk-through the day before scrimmaging, but it’s unclear if they’ll use a similar approach on Friday.

    • WSU’s first preseason scrimmage will be held Saturday at Martin Stadium. The scrimmage is open to media members but closed to the general public.

    Keeping up with the QBs

    After spending two days observing WSU’s 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 periods from the sideline, returning starter Jayden de Laura was back in the fold Thursday taking his normal dose of reps with Jarrett Guarantano, Cammon Cooper and Victor Gabalis.

    “I thought he just needed a couple days off with his arm,” Rolovich said of de Laura. “I don’t think it’s very serious at all, I think he got into it fine. I thought he threw with some confidence, actually, on a few throws.”

    Though it’s widely assumed the Cougars will start de Laura, Guarantano or Cooper in the season opener against Utah State – and narrow the QB competition down to two players in the next seven days – Rolovich continues to sing the praises of Gabalis, and continues to give the freshman walk-on snaps in the 11-on-11 setting.

    “I’ll tell you, Victor has had as good of a camp as maybe any of the quarterbacks,” Rolovich said. “So, we’ve got to keep bringing him along.”

    Without a 7-on-7 period, quarterbacks had more opportunities than usual in the 11-on-11 drills.

    Of the three main contenders, de Laura was the most decisive when it came to his reads and getting the ball out in a timely manner. The sophomore was 3 for 3 in his initial 11-on-11 series and went 1 for 2 on the next one.

    His only incompletion came on a well-thrown deep ball that slot receiver Billy Pospisil didn’t corral. De Laura was imperfect on his third series and threw an interception to Kaleb Ford-Dement after apparently miscommunicating with his intended receiver. On the final series, de Laura threw two incomplete passes and finished the day 6 of 10, according to our count.

    In Guarantano’s first series, he failed to complete a pass and finished 0 for 3 before taking a coverage sack on his fourth play.

    It got better for the Tennessee transfer, who was 2 for 2 and 3 for 3 in his next two 11-on-11 opportunities. On the final series, each of the four QBs had the chance to drive the offense downfield. Guarantano’s drive was the only one that ended in a touchdown. While the veteran hasn’t been as aggressive as de Laura when it comes to attacking the field vertically, a more methodical approach worked to his advantage . Guarantano finished 5 of 8 on the day and completed each of his last five attempts after the slow start.

    Although Rolovich indicated there wasn’t a major difference when it comes to the quarterbacks’ ability to process information before the snap, it still appears de Laura is getting through his reads and releasing faster than Guarantano and Cooper.

    On multiple occasions, Cooper absorbed “sacks,” or was booted from the pocket after struggling to find an open receiver. He’s also been less consistent with his deep passes, overthrowing a receiver by 5-10 yards on the final drive of 11-on-11.

    To Cooper’s credit, he’s been steady when throwing underneath routes and still finished 8 of 12 on Thursday.

    Three big plays

    1. With full pads on, defensive players had the green light to engage in more physical play and aggression. Jaylen Watson, at cornerback, took advantage on the final drive of the 11-on-11 period, crunching Drake Owen as the walk-on receiver was getting ready to catch a short pass from de Laura. Watson identified the play early, crept toward Owen and pinned him to the turf before he could catch the ball. The wind knocked out of him, Owen spent a few seconds on the turf before getting up. He was able to finish practice without any issues.

    2. Stribling’s preseason camp highlight reel grew longer. When Guarantano unleashed a 20-yard pass to the front left corner of the end zone, the big outside receiver high-pointed the ball as Ford-Dement tried to do the same. Though it appeared Stribling got his hands on the ball first, Ford-Dement didn’t give up easily and both players had a share of the ball when they hit the turf. The much bigger Stribling managed to rip it away in the end, but defensive players claimed they had an interception and Rolovich indicated the play would require a video booth review.

    3. Ford-Dement may not have won that play, but he accounted for both interceptions during Thursday’s 11-on-11 periods. He was in the right place at the right time to intercept de Laura in the play noted earlier, and he showed strong recognition skills, diagnosing Gabalis’ short throw intended for walk-on receiver Anderson Grover. Ford-Dement, an Old Dominion transfer, jumped the route, picked the ball off cleanly and raced 20 yards the other way for a pick-six.

    Their words

    “I definitely think Cade’s a little bit more experienced when it comes to knowing what’s going on, but Rodrick’s getting better. Rodrick just has to keep deciding that he wants to improve and when he does that, he’s going to be really good. He’s a big, strong, brute guy. He has really good hands, we’ve just got to keep improving his intellect and his knowledge of the plays. He has to improve his effort and just keep going hard. Cade’s battling it out. Up in the film room we’ve got a saying, ‘Cade’s not the prettiest with some of his stuff, but he usually finds a way to get it done.’ ”

    – Offensive lineman Abraham Lucas on the position battle unfolding at right guard between Cade Beresford and Rodrick Tialavea.

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