With such a healthy roster of returning veterans and experienced transfers in the spotlight, it’d be hard to blame anyone for overlooking Washington State’s freshman class.
The vast majority of them will take a redshirt season, yes. But that’s not to mean there won’t be contributions this season from the rookies, many of whom have been bright throughout fall camp.
Here’s a breakdown of perhaps the Cougars’ most promising five freshmen:
De’Zhaun Stribling (WR, 6-foot-2, 202 pounds)
Several WSU players and staffers have said they sensed something special in Stribling when he arrived on campus for spring camp.
But few probably predicted that the Hawaiian rookie would ascend to the top of the depth chart this early.
“I thought he was great for us in the spring, and he just continued to get better,” offensive coordinator Brian Smith said Saturday.
Odds are good that Stribling lines up as the starter at outside receiver when the Cougars open their season against Utah State at home Sept. 4.
It’s among the most intriguing storylines at WSU this season. Stribling won’t likely be a superstar or the team’s No. 1 passing target, but rookies don’t start here often.
And rookies aren’t often so consistent in various facets.
In 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 team drills throughout fall camp, Stribling rarely dropped a pass – it’s not certain if he even had one.
It’s hard to pin down a single pass-catching characteristic that will distinguish Stribling. He’s been solid in every phase.
He’s lengthy enough to stretch out for tough grabs, strong enough to muscle his way out of tight coverage and quick enough to break away from cornerbacks.
Teammates and coaches have commended Stribling’s work ethic and desire to study the game.
“He’s gonna take care of business,” fellow wideout C.J. Moore said.
Stribling was a top-20 recruit nationally in his class and a top-100 prep receiver in the country last year at Kapolei High, according to 247Sports.com. Still, he was an under-the-radar find for WSU.
His only other offers were from Hawaii, San Diego State and Wake Forest, per 247Sports.com.
Nick Haberer (punter, 6-5, 224)
It appears the Cougs have found their punter of the future in the towering Australian.
Haberer, who hails from the Bundaberg Region of Queensland, adds versatility to WSU’s fourth-down unit.
Having grown up playing Aussie Rules Football, Haberer looks polished on rollout, rugby-style kicks.
But he’s also adapted well to the American game, and has no trouble launching the ball on two steps. Either way, WSU will benefit from his powerful right leg.
“That’s one thing I’ve been really impressed with, is his ability to move … and hit directional punts like normal,” Cougars special teams coordinator Kyle Krantz said earlier in fall camp. “So it does allow you to be a little bit creative and do some fun stuff. We’ll do it and see how it goes, but we’re going to do what he does best.”
Before earning a full scholarship from WSU, Haberer spent time working with trainers at Prokick Australia, a prestigious program that has produced 17 college All-Americans and five Ray Guy Award winners.
Haberer attended Brisbane Lions Academy of the Australian Football League for two years before committing to WSU. He was ranked by 247Sports.com as the No. 8 punter in the 2021 class.
Haberer has big shoes to fill. Oscar Draguicevich III, one of WSU’s best punters in program history, held down the position from 2018-20.
Francisco Mauigoa (LB, 6-3, 219)
Jake Dickert gave a definitive answer when asked if any one defender has surprised him most throughout camp.
“He’s been amazing,” WSU’s defensive coordinator said of Mauigoa on Saturday. “I’m really happy with his development, and I think you’ll see him on the field steadily this season.”
Thinking back on his past 10 years coaching defenses, Dickert said, he’d have trouble recalling another linebacker who settled into the schemes so quickly.
“Just his smarts. He’s a heckuva football player, he’s a heckuva athlete,” Dickert said. “But man, he’s come in here and picked up our defense.”
Mauigoa has experience at inside and outside linebacker. Upon finishing his prep career at Tafuna High in American Samoa, Mauigoa was ranked 41st nationally in the former and 86th in the latter by ESPN and 247Sports.com, respectively.
Mauigoa has a shot at cracking the Cougars’ rotation as a rookie, though it will be an uphill climb. WSU boasts a wealth of solid reserve linebackers, including camp standout Travion Brown, TCU transfer Ben Wilson and budding sophomore Kyle Thornton.
The more the merrier, Dickert said.
“Especially (playing against) some high-tempo teams this season, we’re going to rotate a lot of guys in,” he said, referring to the linebacker, edge and defensive tackle positions.
Dickert sought to challenge a few of the more promising youngsters during Saturday’s scrimmage. Mauigoa was one of a handful to play somewhere between 40 and 50 snaps – multiple reps came with the first-team defense.
Even if he doesn’t see a ton of playing time this season, Mauigoa should be considered a starting contender as soon as next year. The Cougs will graduate three linebackers from their two-deep.
And Mauigoa is ahead of schedule in his development. He’s got the size – and apparently the smarts, too – that one might expect of an upperclassman.
Mauigoa’s older brother, Frederick, started for the Cougars at center from 2017-19.
Lawrence Falatea (edge, 6-4, 208)
Falatea was noticeably productive last week. He posted a sack in Saturday’s scrimmage and registered another – plus three quarterback pressures – against WSU’s No. 1 offense during an 11-on-11 drill earlier in the week.
“I’ve seen Lawrence show up,” edge coach A.J. Cooper said.
Despite being undersized for his position, Falatea has been a consistent pass-rushing pest in recent practices, utilizing a quick release to beat tackles off the snap.
Dickert said he’s planning on using five edge-rushers this season. Realistically, two spots are available behind vets Brennan Jackson, Ron Stone Jr. and Willie Taylor III.
“We want to keep those guys fresh,” Dickert said. “We’ll try to do as much as we can package-wise, maybe get four defensive ends in at a time to pass rush. You’re gonna see a lot of people on our D-line playing and I think that’s a good thing.
“It creates accountability. Guys at practice know they have a role. It might be 10, 12 snaps, but you’re seeing some guys … really flashing in their role, and that’s exciting.”
Falatea is one of five or six edge rushers competing for playing time, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the Sandy, Utah, product is held back to develop further.
Falatea was ranked by 247Sports.com as the 11th-best college prospect in Utah and the No. 84 outside linebacker in the country.
Andrew Edson (edge, 6-4, 238)
The Cougars could be set at edge-rusher for a few years to come.
Edson, from Mount Si High in Snoqualmie, “has been phenomenal” at camp, Dickert said.
Edson showed high-level awareness, reading the quarterback’s eyes and extending his arm to bat a pass at the line in Saturday’s scrimmage. He also logged a couple of QB pressures.
Edson’s frame already looks the part – it’s comparable to that of Cougar mainstays Jackson, Taylor and Stone Jr.
Coach Nick Rolovich said Edson has endeared himself to the team through his “infectious” playing style. He’s a “workhorse,” Stone Jr. added.
“I think every Coug before him is going to appreciate watching him play,” Rolovich said.
It might be a long shot that Edson sees the field this early, but Dickert said he was one of the players to be “targeted” for extra reps and evaluation during the scrimmage.
“We knew, especially those guys (Mauigoa, Falatea, Edson) … would have to come in and help us right away,” Dickert said. “Sometimes, that can be a lot of pressure, but these kids came in and they love the game, and they’ve learned it.”
ESPN ranked Edson the No. 14 overall prep player in the Evergreen State last year.
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