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Washington State veterans Max Borghi, Abraham Lucas and Jaylen Watson opt out of Sun Bowl

Washington State running back Max Borghi (21) reacts after scoring a touchdown against Washington during the second half of the Apple Cup on Nov. 26 in Seattle. Borghi is one of three Cougar players opting out of the Sun Bowl.  (Associated Press)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Three of Washington State’s most talented football players won’t be participating in the Cougars’ Sun Bowl finale.

Instead, they’ll begin the process leading to the NFL draft.

Meanwhile, the Cougars are left with big shoes to fill.

WSU coach Jake Dickert confirmed Wednesday that running back Max Borghi, right tackle Abraham Lucas and cornerback Jaylen Watson have opted out of the postseason.

“We had a lot of conversations about it and we obviously wish them the best of luck, and we support them,” Dickert said. “Everyone has their own individual situations.

“My personal feelings … I’m not going to get into that too much. It’s their personal deal and I want to make sure I support them through that.”

Before the opt-outs were made official, it had been widely presumed over the past couple of weeks that the three WSU captains and pro hopefuls planned to skip the Cougars’ bowl game, which kicks off Dec. 31 in El Paso, Texas, against Miami.

With Borghi absent, reliable grad student Deon McIntosh will adopt a heavier workload. True freshman Christian Hilborn impressed Cougars coaches at practices this year. He’ll probably get the nod at tackle.

“He’s got an opportunity to show what he can really do, and I’m excited about his potential growth,” Dickert said of Hilborn, a 6-foot-5, 320-pounder from Salt Lake City.

Left tackle Liam Ryan’s status for the Sun Bowl is also uncertain. Ryan is dealing with an unspecified injury. Reports have surfaced recently that he won’t be available in El Paso, but Dickert didn’t confirm whether the four-year starter will play.

“Liam’s been a war daddy all season,” Dickert said. “I can’t say enough about Liam and what he’s done through the season. He’s been fighting through everything, and we’re still dealing with that. We’ll see as this progresses.”

Borghi, a four-year standout from Colorado, declared for the NFL draft last week and confirmed to the Denver Post that his Cougars career has concluded. He also let slip that the Cougars will be significantly impaired on their offensive line at the Sun Bowl. WSU’s limitations up front factored into Borghi’s decision to opt out.

“I wish I was there with my team and playing, but looking at the reality of it, it’s in my best interest not to play,” said Borghi, who told the Post he’s been training in Arizona ahead of the NFL draft. “I’ve got to do what’s best for (my draft prospects), especially playing the position I play. It’s high risk, and I’m nothing without my O-line, and we’re missing a right tackle, left tackle and starting guard. It didn’t seem worth it to me to risk injury.”

Right guard Cade Beresford, who shared reps with Ma’ake Fifita throughout the season, transferred to Boise State earlier this month.

In hopes of shoring up the weak spots on their offensive line, the Cougars might shift some responsibilities. Dickert hinted at the possibility that one of WSU’s starters at guard – Fifita or Jarrett Kingston – flips to tackle.

“Those guys are valuable pieces to move around and see what we can do,” he said. “It’s exciting to make sure we’re really gluing that line together, and they’ve done a good job over the last couple of weeks of really jelling.”

Junior Jack Wilson – a 6-11 former Idaho basketball player – has taken “a bunch of reps” at tackle this month, Dickert added.

Borghi ends his impactful stay at WSU tied with Steve Broussard atop the program’s all-time scoring list with 41 touchdowns. He’s second to Broussard in Cougars history with 32 rushing TDs.

Boasting exceptional acceleration and a deadly stiff-arm, Borghi piled up 3,292 yards from scrimmage on 525 touches (6.3 yards per) across 39 games in crimson and gray.

Lucas started 42 games at right tackle over the past four years and earned All-Pac-12 honors every season. The Everett product didn’t allow a sack in his final campaign. He accepted an invite to the Senior Bowl last month.

Watson, who also plans to attend the Senior Bowl in January, transferred to WSU last season after a year away from football – he initially signed with Southern Cal after a two-year junior college stint, but didn’t meet academic eligibility requirements. The 6-3, 205-pound Georgia native broke out in 2020 as one of the Pac-12’s most physically gifted defensive backs.

At corner, the Cougars are expected to use some combination of senior Derrick Langford Jr., sophomore Chau Smith-Wade and transfers Kaleb Ford-Dement and Chris Jackson.

Borghi, Lucas and Watson all elected to end their WSU careers with a year of eligibility remaining – an extra season granted last year by the NCAA in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.