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Sports >  WSU football

Sun Bowl notebook: Nakia Watson set to start at running back for Washington State; Cougar offensive line receives makeover

UPDATED: Wed., Dec. 29, 2021

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

EL PASO, Texas – Washington State’s football team will play its finale without its two senior running backs and its two senior offensive tackles, so the Cougars are offering fans a glimpse into the future.

Nakia Watson is set to start his first game in WSU’s backfield, and he’ll be taking handoffs behind a reworked offensive line – a preview of the team’s personnel grouping up front in 2022, perhaps – when the Cougars meet Central Michigan at 9 a.m. Friday in the Sun Bowl.

“The opportunity came for (Watson) and the O-linemen, too,” quarterback Jayden de Laura said Wednesday after a padless but energetic practice session at Eastwood High. “It’s really a good look for what we got next year. We like that, and we’ll see what we got in this bowl game.”

Star tailback Max Borghi opted out of WSU’s postseason matchup earlier this month to focus on preparing for the NFL draft.

Deon McIntosh, another outgoing senior who totaled 111 rushing attempts this year compared to Borghi’s 160, also won’t be playing in the Sun Bowl, according to coach Jake Dickert.

“Deon did not make the trip and that’s really all I’m going to say about that,” Dickert said Wednesday.

Right tackle Abraham Lucas opted out of the bowl game after completing his fourth impressive Cougars campaign, during which he did not allow a sack and saw his name appear prominently on NFL radars. Left tackle Liam Ryan – who, like Lucas, has started 42 games on WSU’s O-line – did not travel with the team to the west Texas city.

Speculation had been circulating among Cougars supporters over the past few weeks that Ryan would be missing the Sun Bowl because of an unspecified injury. Dickert confirmed the rumors. Ryan had surgery recently.

“I just appreciate everything Liam’s done for us,” Dickert said. “We’re trying to get him here by game day because he’s one of our vocal captains and leaders.”

McIntosh’s surprise absence probably means a heavy workload for Watson, the junior Wisconsin transfer who drew praise from coaches during fall camp in August but couldn’t crack the RB rotation and played sparingly in his first season on the Palouse.

The 5-foot-11, 230-pounder totaled 52 yards on just 19 carries for the Cougars (7-5). He accumulated 522 yards and five touchdowns on 127 attempts across 16 games in two years with the Badgers.

“It’s nothing new to him,” de Laura said of Watson. “He’s played on a big stage before.”

Watson, a native of Austin, Texas, returns to his home state with a chance to more than double his 2021 production.

“He’s been waiting to really prove himself this whole season,” Dickert said. “He hasn’t gotten a lot of reps up to this point.

“Some of the guys opting out, it is what it is, but we get a chance to see some of our young guys. We’ve had an opportunity to do that the last four weeks, but there’s nothing you can replicate like game day. Nakia’s going to get some great reps and we’re going to be excited about what he can do, and it’s going to be a stepping stone for him for our future.”

Sophomore Jouvensly Bazil is presumed to be the Cougars’ No. 2 option at RB.

In the trenches, the Cougars shifted some pieces around to compensate for their limitations at tackle.

Jarrett Kingston, WSU’s starter at left guard all year, slides over to left tackle.

“I think his future is at tackle, and I think that’s going to be an exciting piece about seeing what he can do at that position,” Dickert said of the junior second-year starter, who stands 6-5 and checks in at 300 pounds.

Senior Brian Greene missed a handful of games this year because of an injury and a personal matter. When available, the Yakima product typically started at center for WSU. He worked at guard in a few contests, and he’ll get the nod at left guard against CMU. Sophomore Konner Gomness filled in for Greene this season, starting at center in seven games. He’ll make it eight Friday.

Breakout sophomore Ma’ake Fifita will hold down his post at right guard. He alternated with Cade Beresford at that spot throughout the year, but Beresford recently transferred to Boise State. Christian Hilborn takes over for Lucas at right tackle. Dickert sees great potential in the agile true freshman from Salt Lake City, who moves more fluidly than one might expect of a 6-5, 319-pounder.

“Christian gets an opportunity to play in this moment, in this game and show what he can do,” the first-year coach said. “He didn’t come here just to sit the bench, so he’s been preparing all season like he’s the starter, and now he’s going to get that opportunity.”

Sophomore Rodrick Tialavea and true freshman walk-on Jernias Tafia are listed on WSU’s bowl week depth chart as backup guards. Dickert indicated earlier this month that junior Jack Wilson – a 6-11 former basketball player at Idaho and Oregon State – had “taken a bunch of reps” at tackle during WSU’s practice sessions in Pullman and can substitute in a pinch.

“(O-line coach Dennis McKnight), he’s been coaching his tail off for four weeks, and that group is going to respond – I guarantee you that,” Dickert said.

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