PULLMAN – Washington State’s football team didn’t field the complete version of its run-and-shoot offense last season.
But the Cougs’ playbook is opening up now, according to second-year offensive coordinator Brian Smith.
“We’ll have more stuff (installed) this year than we had last year,” Smith said Monday after practice at Rogers Field, “and that’s natural, just because we’ve gotten a little bit of a season, and we had spring (camp) and now we’re going through fall camp, where the learning curve happens a little faster.”
WSU lacked the prep time necessary to fully grasp coach Nick Rolovich’s new system last year.
Spring ball was axed by the coronavirus pandemic and the Cougs’ fall camp was anything but traditional. WSU didn’t often have the luxury of a full roster.
So several plays went uncalled as the Cougars worked through the kinks during their shortened campaign.
“When you were a new staff installing a new offense, you were gonna be a little bit behind,” Smith said. “But part of that was us not having too (many plays) in, making sure that we were putting in what they could handle, what they could learn and be able to execute really well.”
The competition between offense and defense at fall camp thus far has been “fairly back and forth,” Smith observed. WSU’s offense appeared more polished Monday than it had two days earlier in a scrimmage that was marred somewhat by dropped passes and bad snaps.
Smith and Rolovich agreed that the Cougars are maintaining a good pace in terms of soaking in the run-and-shoot’s finer details and nailing down its playbook ahead of their season opener on Sept. 4 at home against Utah State.
Rolovich was quick to highlight his O-coordinator’s deep knowledge of the system.
“I think he’s always been in a flow with (the run-and-shoot). He played center in it,” said Rolovich, who handled snaps from Smith during the pair’s playing days at Hawaii in the early 2000s.
“Probably from top to bottom, (Smith is) a guy who knows it, the intricacies of it as good as anyone alive right now. … I see us being way ahead of where we were last year.”
Offensive inconsistencies were prevalent en route to costly empty possessions and a 1-3 finish in 2020.
Some of that might be chalked up to the team’s shortage of experience in fresh-learned formations.
“Last year was just unique in itself, you know, and it was unique for everybody, playing a fall without a true fall camp, without spring ball,” Smith said.
But at this point, “we definitely trust the offense more,” wide receiver Joey Hobert said. “We’re not thinking about it as much.”
In 2020, Hobert said, Cougar pass-catchers were adjusting their routes based on what defenses were showing them.
“Now it’s more running full speed into it, instead of thinking about the play altogether,” he said.
Veteran tackle Liam Ryan voiced a similar view earlier in camp, noting that “a whole year with that offense has definitely been a huge impact for us.”
“We didn’t have spring ball last year and then we had to do everything virtually, then come out here and expect to play four games and look perfect,” the senior said. “We tried our best last year, but it’s a new year. I like what we got this year.”
The Cougars have a three-man competition at quarterback to sort out – along with position battles at wide receiver and right guard. Smith’s priority, however, lies with the mental side of the game.
At the scrimmage, for instance, he could sense a drop in poise among offensive players when mistakes were made.
“The thing with our group right now is the confidence when things don’t go well,” he said. “I thought toward the end of last week we were doing a really good job of just battling every single play.
“The scrimmage felt different. It seemed like things got a little bit out of hand at times on our side mentally, where guys weren’t really pushing through. I thought today was better for them, competing every single play, clearing a bad play and competing the next play.”
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