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Washington State uncertain on when quarterback will be named

WSU quarterbacks Jayden de Laura and Jarrett Guarantano take reps during a mini-scrimmage at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash., Aug. 21, 2021.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

Coach Nick Rolovich might announce his starting quarterback publicly a few days ahead of Washington State’s season opener.

Then again, maybe he’ll try to keep that information under wraps until Saturday’s kickoff.

Sophomore Jayden de Laura, the Cougars’ returning starter, and grad transfer Jarrett Guarantano remain locked in a tight battle for the nod. Neither appears to be giving up ground. WSU hopes it doesn’t come down to the wire.

Rolovich hinted Friday that he’d like to settle on a starter by Tuesday or Wednesday, but he’s unsure “if that’s going to be decided in the next four days, or if that’s going to go longer.”

In any case, he does not plan on platooning the two when the Cougars play host to Utah State.

“Internally, I’ll let them know (who will be the starter) fairly soon,” Rolovich said. “Externally, keep people guessing, if I’m being honest.”

Later in the post-practice media session, the second-year coach reconsidered.

“I don’t know that I want to stand on that statement,” he said. “There’s an element to (the Aggies) not knowing who it is, I get that. … That’s something that happens in football. But in today’s day and age, if you announce it to the team, you might as well announce it to everybody, just because of the amount of access everyone has.

“I don’t know that I’d play a tricky game at this point.”

The Cougars are truly “still evaluating” de Laura and Guarantano, Rolovich said, adding that “this is not psychological warfare right now.”

The reps have been distributed equally at practices, and Rolovich would not provide any clues as to who’s had a leg up in recent days.

“We gotta figure out who’s going to take that first snap,” he said. “I wish I could put a hard timeline on it. I think we pretty much followed what we were trying to do – getting it down to two – and now there’s gotta be some separation.”

WSU eliminated junior Cammon Cooper from its QB race early last week.

With the competition narrowed, the Cougars have introduced more challenging scenarios to the signal-callers in team periods, tasking them with tougher throws and testing their leadership qualities with additional pressure situations, like two-minute 11-on-11 drills.

Still, any separation has been too minimal to note.

“They’re both doing fine things. It’s not a knock on them, but you gotta leave no doubt,” Rolovich said. “The decision should be made before the decision is made, if that makes sense.”

Asked whether it’s possible the QB competition continues into the season, Rolovich indicated the starter under center “probably will not” change after he is named.

“But on this field and in that building … they gotta scratch and claw at the heels of whoever’s taking the first snap,” he said. “If they’re not doing that, we’re not getting better.”

It’s a hard call either way. De Laura is expected to be WSU’s quarterback of the future, so the Cougars will benefit from any early game experience he gets.

The versatile 6-foot Hawaiian showed his high ceiling in spurts last season. He also suffered from youthful errors.

Otherwise, it’s Guarantano’s final opportunity to play a leading role in major college football after 32 up-and-down starts over four years at Tennessee. The Cougars like his quick release, prototypical size (6-4, 220 pounds) and veteran savvy.

“Whoever’s back there, they’re gonna get the job done no matter what,” standout senior receiver Travell Harris said. “All I can tell you is his name starts with a J. I don’t know who.”

Rolo on the running backs

A less unsettling depth chart question in the lead up to the season, the Cougars are still weighing how to properly employ their three talented running backs.

Of course, senior sensation Max Borghi will be the first man up.

With Borghi missing all but one game in 2020 because of an injury, multifaceted senior Deon McIntosh had a breakout season.

Power back Nakia Watson joined the fold in the spring. The junior posted 522 yards and five touchdowns on 127 carries over the past two years at Wisconsin.

Too many options to manage? Rolovich isn’t concerned about spreading the touches.

“They’ve got a very unselfish group,” he said. “I think they like the idea that one guy isn’t going to take the whole game. In a season where you’re looking at nine straight before a bye … it’s going to prove to be a benefit for us in case something happens.”

Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense tends to favor the passing game by about a 60-40 ratio, but there’s flexibility in that number, the coach acknowledged.

The pass-run balance could fluctuate substantially this year, considering the unknowns at QB and wide receiver and the well-stocked RB room.

“I’m not really interested in breaking individual records,” Rolovich said. “I’d like to win football games, whatever it takes. If it’s run the ball more than 60-40 or 70-30, and that’s what helps us win, we gotta do that.”

Offensive strides

Rolovich expects WSU to commit fewer turnovers and be more mentally durable this season. Last year, the Cougars coughed up the ball eight times in four games and were “weak-minded offensively” when “things didn’t go our way,” Rolovich said.

“Whether you say it was because of (the odd nature of the) year, whatever the reason was, the mentality needed to be stronger,” he said. “I think we’re making our way toward that.

“The biggest part is this team growing together and trusting in each other, and being accountable to one another, not just for any selfish reasons.”