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Five compelling position battles at Washington State and who we’re picking to win each spot this fall

Jarrett Guarantano (left), Jayden de Laura (middle) and Cammon Cooper (right) throw at training camp.  (Associated Press)

PULLMAN – Five or six days before Washington State opens the 2021 season, the Cougars will release their first official depth chart of the fall. Most fans will skim over the positions where the Cougars return entrenched starters – Max Borghi at running back, Jahad Woods at weakside linebacker and Abe Lucas at right tackle – and focus on the spots with much less clarity.

As usual, there’s plenty of those at WSU. As usual, one of those is quarterback.

As the Cougars prepare for the second full week of fall camp, we dissect five of the team’s most intriguing and important position battles and make educated guesses as to who’ll claim each spot this fall.

1. Quarterback

In the mix: Jayden de Laura (So., 6 feet, 190 pounds); Jarrett Guarantano (Sr., 6-4, 220); Cammon Cooper (Jr., 6-4, 208)

What it looks like: If you’re here looking for any new clues or hints as to who’s taking snaps for Washington State this season, you’ve come to the wrong place. Up until Saturday’s preseason scrimmage, I felt de Laura and Guarantano had a leg up – err, arm up – on Cooper. That was until the redshirt junior and returning backup went 6 of 7 inside the team’s practice bubble and connected with Donovan Ollie for a 70-yard touchdown. De Laura was 5 of 7 with one touchdown, and Guarantano was 4 of 10 with no touchdowns. None of the three threw an interception. The preseason scrimmages may be the best simulation for what WSU’s QBs would see in a live game come September, but it doesn’t mean they carry more weight when Nick Rolovich and his staff evaluate the position.

“There’s days you’re like, ‘There’s Jarrett, he’s got it. Oh wait, no, there’s Cam, he does. Oh wait, here comes Jayden,’ ” Rolovich said Saturday. “So this is about consistency and leading this group, and what I think we’ve struggled with a little bit is a little bit worrying about what the other guy is doing, what play the other guy is getting. We need to worry about the play we have and good or bad, let it go, then we go to the next play.”

We make our selections below with a disclaimer: This week’s slate of practices, and Saturday’s second preseason scrimmage, should go a long way toward deciding who wins QB1 duties. Cooper and Guarantano still have time to shake things up, but if all things are equal, playing de Laura would seem to be a better long-term investment for a program that hasn’t had continuity at QB since Luke Falk. Rolovich will obviously select the QB that gives his team the best chance to win, but Cooper and Guarantano didn’t assert themselves during spring camp with de Laura missing, and according to WSU’s second-year coach, they haven’t necessarily outplayed the returning starter through eight practices this fall.

Our pick: de Laura

2. Right guard

In the mix: Cade Beresford (Jr., 6-7, 300); Rodrick Tialavea (So., 6-5, 322)

What it looks like: The position once held by 29-game starter Josh Watson is the only position on the offensive line up for grabs in 2021. It seemed as though Beresford, Tialavea and Konner Gomness would each have opportunities to win the starting spot, but Gomness was absent when the team opened camp and has taken most of his reps at center since returning. Beresford, as a fourth-year junior, has a leg up on Tialavea, a redshirt freshman, with two extra years in a college weight room and seemed to be the team’s top choice coming out of spring camp.

Center Brian Greene, who’ll start next to either Beresford or Tialavea this fall, handicapped the competition after a recent practice at Rogers Field.

“They’re different players,” Greene said. “Cade’s extremely tall. I think he’s the tallest guy on our O-line. He’s 6-7 so he’s a massive guard. I haven’t played next to someone that big since Cody O’Connell. He’s extremely athletic for his size. I love working with him, he’s one of my best friends.

“Rod, he’s a freshman. I kind of brought him along a lot this last year. He’s pretty comfortable with me. I like him a lot. They’re both great people, both really physical in the run game and they’re both great pass-blockers.”

Our pick: Beresford

3. Free safety

In the mix: Halid Djibril (Jr., 6-1, 202); George Hicks III (Sr., 6-0, 191); Tyrone Hill (Sr., 6-2, 206); Hunter Escorcia (So., 6-1, 188)

What it looks like: Only two of these three are taking practice reps for now. Hill Jr., a Buffalo transfer, left the team’s first practice with an injury and hasn’t been back on the field since, but if the former All-MAC selection and Jim Thorpe Award watch list nominee is cleared at some point in the next week or two, he should be back in the thick of the competition. A fifth-year senior who spent the last four years of cornerback, Hicks III agreed to change positions after spring camp when the Cougars realized they’d need reinforcements at safety, losing 2020 contributors Tyrese Ross and Ayden Hector.

“The free safety position I think is our biggest (position battle),” defensive coordinator Jake Dickert said. “HD (Djibril) and Hicks III and Hunter, they’re going at it. Who can be reliable in that middle third tackling? We saw a couple plays today out of HD and George and just excited about their growth.”

Our pick: Hicks III

4. Z-receiver

In the mix: CJ Moore (Jr., 6-4, 190); Donovan Ollie (So., 6-3, 210)

What it looks like: Last year, and at his previous stop in the Mountain West, Rolovich typically relied on four starting receivers to handle more than 90% of the snaps. WSU’s situation isn’t as cut and dried in 2021 and the Cougars have more depth at all four spots even after seeing two starters transfer and another tear his ACL in the offseason. So, it’s conceivable that Moore and Ollie could share playing time at Z- receiver this fall, unless one is able to create enough separation before Sept. 4.

Moore, a former four-star prospect, is slightly taller at 6-4 and probably has a higher athletic ceiling, though he’s been plagued by drops in recent practices. Ollie’s had consistency issues, too, and both could use still work when it comes to using their big frames to win 50/50 balls and shed off smaller DBs.

“We’re just out there competing every day,” Ollie said. “He’s a great player, too, and coach Dre (Andre Allen) tells us every day, just go out there and compete. Do what we know how to do, do what the scheme says, do exactly what we come in every day to do. Just come in and work hard, compete every day.”

Our pick: Moore

5. Placekicker

In the mix: Andrew Boyle (So., 6-2, 193); Dean Janikowski (So., 6-1, 211)

What it looks like: The role Blake Mazza played for the Cougars from 2018-20 shouldn’t be understated, and his replacement – a redshirt sophomore one way or the other – will have four years and dozens of kicks to carve out their own legacy as WSU’s next placekicker. We recently saw Boyle crack a 62-yarder through the uprights in a Twitter video, and Janikowski missed just one field goal while going perfect on PATs the last time he was a starting kicker at San Diego’s Cathedral High.

“It’s a combination of everything, and at the end of the day it’s who gives us the best chance to win,” special teams coach Kyle Krantz said of the process he’ll use to choose WSU’s kicker. “I’ve got to be comfortable trotting that guy out game one and who’s going to give us the best chance to be successful.”

Our pick: Boyle