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Sports >  WSU football

Five takeaways from Washington State coach Nick Rolovich’s signing day press conference

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 3, 2021

Washington State coach Nick Rolovich walks along the sideline during the Cougars’ Nov. 14 game against Oregon in Pullman.  (Associated Press)
Washington State coach Nick Rolovich walks along the sideline during the Cougars’ Nov. 14 game against Oregon in Pullman. (Associated Press)

What once marked the most important day on college football’s recruiting calendar, Wednesday came without any breaking developments or surprises for head coach Nick Rolovich and Washington State.

The Cougars supplemented the 19 high school and junior college players who signed in December with three FBS transfers and one more high school product on Wednesday, bringing their 2021 recruiting class to 23 players.

Along with Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, TCU linebacker Ben Wilson and Michigan State cornerback Chris Jackson, who’ve all been on campus since the start of the new semester, WSU signed wide receiver Tsion Nunnally, a Santa Rosa, California, native who committed to the Cougars last July.

Rolovich met virtually with reporters for the first time since the season-ending loss at Utah to discuss the 2021 signing class and other relevant topics surrounding WSU’s football program. Here’s an expansion on five things the coach said during Wednesday’s news conference.

‘Felt like home off the rip’

Within the first hour of submitting his name into the transfer portal, somewhere between 20-30 programs – WSU being one of those – reached out to Guarantano, the Tennessee graduate transfer told Yogi Roth and Guy Haberman of the Pac-12 Networks Wednesday.

“Me and my family just wanted to take a deep breath and kind of just handle the process, go slow into this thing,” Guarantano said. “But the process kind of didn’t let us.”

Even then, Guarantano identified the Cougars as a potential fit almost immediately. Without visiting the Pullman campus, Guarantano felt at ease following phone conversations with Rolovich, quarterbacks coach Craig Stutzmann and offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Brian Smith.

“It kind of felt like home off the rip,” he said. “It was probably a couple days later, honestly, that I knew Washington State was going to be my home, but I wanted to prolong it a little bit, just make sure I was making the right decision.”

The Cougars did their due diligence in the transfer portal, keeping their eyes open throughout January for experienced players who could add depth or, in Guarantano’s case, push for immediate playing time at a key position. Rolovich is close with Tyson Helton, one of Guarantano’s former OCs at Tennessee, and the Cougars gathered more information on the QB from a former Hawaii graduate assistant who now works with the Volunteers.

“Really, I thought what Jarrett was looking for and the opportunity here really matched,” Rolovich said. “I think there was a good connection between him and Stutz on the phone. Really, it was the personal conversation between myself, Stutz and Jarrett that we just felt like it was a good match.”

Although the Cougars bring back returning QB starter Jayden de Laura, the top storyline during spring camp, and possibly through the first few weeks of fall camp, will undoubtedly be the battle between Guarantano, de Laura and redshirt sophomore Cammon Cooper.

“We were very transparent with the quarterbacks before it got to completion (with Guarantano), not necessarily when he signed but him making his decision,” Rolovich said. “Stutz had that conversation with those guys individually.”

One more year

Within the past two months, the Cougars added four more players to their 2021 class, but the most important commitments they secured came from players already in the program.

When the season ended, right tackle Abraham Lucas and running back Max Borghi both mulled returning to school for one more season versus entering their names in the NFL draft.

Lucas wasn’t widely regarded as a top-tier offensive tackle in this year’s draft, but most experts projected he’d still have a chance to be selected in rounds 4-7. Borghi, whose back injury prevented him from climbing up draft boards last season, was more of a fringe prospect but perhaps could’ve boosted his stock at an event like the scouting combine.

Instead, both elected to return to WSU this fall, giving the Cougars a returning starter at 10 of 11 positions on offense – all but right guard.

Speaking with reporters for the first time since Lucas and Borghi made their respective decisions, Rolovich said he made a point to not interfere in either player’s process and checked in only a few times.

On Lucas: “Abe was, I felt, very independent and thoughtful in his decision. He knew we were here if he wanted to talk about it. I think he’s got a support system. I was really impressed with his maturity. If he wanted my opinion, I’d give it to him, but it didn’t come to that. … He was good, he was really about his business. He’s on a mission, I think he has unfinished business here.”

On Borghi: “Max, very similar, really. There weren’t a whole lot of conversations. I’m not into trying to tell the kid what he’s got to do. … There’s no doubt Max has ability and definitely a benefit to get him back also.”

Evaluating Nunnally

It wasn’t necessarily a grand surprise that Nunnally signed his letter of intent with the Cougars on Wednesday, but it definitely offered a sigh of relief to those who track WSU’s recruiting moves.

The Northern California native had been committed to the Cougars since July 31, but curiously didn’t sign his letter of intent in December. According to Cougfan.com, academic hurdles came up for the receiver and Nunnally’s coach at Cardinal Newman told the website the player’s loyalty to WSU never wavered.

Still, a handful of other schools reached out to Nunnally in the meantime, according to Cougfan. While his offer list consisted of one other Pac-12 school, Washington, and four midmajors, there’s always the chance a player reconsiders when bigger programs start to show interest, as they often to in January and February while trying to fulfill various position needs.

Nunnally won’t enroll until the summer, presuming he completes the courses he needs to become eligible. Even if he participated in spring camp, it’s unlikely he’d be vying for a starting job anytime soon.

But with Renard Bell and Calvin Jackson Jr. approaching their final year of eligibility, and Travell Harris and Jamire Calvin coming up on their fifth year as college players, there should be spots opening in the foreseeable future. Nunnally is the highest-rated high school receiver recruit in the 2021 class.

“I think he’s athletic for a young man of his size. I think he’s got a high ceiling to continue to develop,” Rolovich said. “He does things you can’t teach. Great speed. There’s a lot of details that go into being a college receiver and we just feel like he’s got a high start point.”

What now?

As of now, the breakdown of WSU’s signing class by position is: wide receiver (five), linebacker (four), defensive back (three), defensive line (three), edge (three), offensive line (two), quarterback (two) and punter (one).

The Cougars should have 2-3 scholarships to fill. It was suggested to Rolovich the team had one vacant scholarship left, but that was before he told reporters Hawaii transfer receiver Lincoln Victor was joining the team as a walk-on, despite most presuming he’d have a scholarship. Moments after Rolovich’s news conference, another scholarship opened when offensive lineman Hunter Mayginnes announced he’d be entering the transfer portal.

Rolovich refrained from discussing the team’s scholarship situation in detail, responding to a reporter, “That’s insider (information), that’s internal information. I don’t know if I can give that out.”

Assuming they have at least two scholarships to fill, the Cougars may use one of those on a running back. The position should be one of the strongest on the team this fall, with Borghi and Deon McIntosh returning, but it’s unlikely either will be with the program after this season, leaving Jouvensly Bazile and Peni Naulu as the only scholarship backs on the roster.

Rolovich doesn’t anticipate any more movement within the next 24 hours, but he pointed to the fluidity of recruiting and indicated the Cougars could add someone at a given moment.

“We’re done for the day,” Rolovich said. “These things happen so fast, I can’t say nothing won’t happen tomorrow, but I don’t anticipate it at this point. But for the rest of the day, these are the names that are joining us.”

4.6% better

On paper, the Cougars should bring back one of the most experienced rosters in the Pac-12, with all-conference-caliber talent at just about every position on offense and a handful on defense.

Rolovich cautions that alone won’t get WSU back to the postseason, or in position to contend for a division title, and recognizes the need for consistency after a 2020 season that seldom saw the Cougars piece together more than two good quarters of football in a single game.

“It’s a positive, but it’s not like it was just some flawless play out there (in 2020),” Rolovich said. “There’s still a lot of improvement. The competition is still going to be, hopefully, heavy at every position, make everyone better. We have to play better and more consistently to win football games.

“There was some great times, then there was some times when we started to fall apart and we weren’t able to get it back on the rails. That’s kind of the theme of the offseason.”

In the days or weeks after WSU’s 45-28 season-ending loss at Utah, Rolovich learned ESPN’s analytics model gave the Cougars a 95.4% chance of beating the Utes when de Laura’s 33-yard touchdown run gave the visitors a 28-7 lead just before halftime.

“I printed it out, put it all over the building,” Rolovich said. “We’ve got to get 4.6% better. That’s the thought process. Had a good first half against Oregon, then things start to fall apart. When things are good, it’s always easy for people, and I want to make sure we go into next season with less of a front-runner mindset.”

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