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Sports >  WSU football

Nick Rolovich’s absence, the pending QB battle & other Washington State storylines to watch for at Pac-12 Media Day

UPDATED: Mon., July 26, 2021

Washington State coach Nick Rolovich looks on during a Pacific-12 Conference game against Utah on Dec. 19 in Salt Lake City.  (Associated Press)
Washington State coach Nick Rolovich looks on during a Pacific-12 Conference game against Utah on Dec. 19 in Salt Lake City. (Associated Press)

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – One thing is already inherently clear about Washington State’s experience at Pac-12 Media Day in 2021: It’ll be unlike any other since the conference’s inaugural gathering 30 years ago.

Which is saying something considering last year’s event, held exclusively through Zoom, was plenty unique in its own right.

The 2021 event should offer more normalcy for the schools attending, but recent developments in Pullman guarantee a different Media Day for a smaller than-usual contingent of Washington State representatives. We’ll start there as we focus on five Cougar storylines to keep an eye on Tuesday as WSU takes the podium – and the virtual podium – Tuesday morning at the W Hollywood Hotel.

Rolovich’s absence

When he was at the University of Hawaii, Nick Rolovich was usually hard to miss at Mountain West Media Day. One year, he brought an Elvis Presley impersonator with him to the annual event. Another year, someone dressed as Britney Spears joined the UH coach. In 2019, he hired a fortune teller to tag along.

But, not only will Rolovich be without a plus-one at Pac-12 Media Day, WSU’s second-year coach won’t be there himself. Last week, Rolovich announced on Twitter he’s elected not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and therefore won’t attend Media Day. Media members are able to attend without proof of vaccination, but coaches and players must be vaccinated as they’ll be participating in multiple activities without masks, ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura reported.

In his statement, Rolovich indicated he “will not comment further on my decision.” To be sure, those questions will still come when Rolovich is invited to the virtual podium in Hollywood. Further, the two vaccinated WSU players attending Tuesday’s event, running back Max Borghi and linebacker Jahad Woods, will more than likely field questions about their coach’s absence, his stance on the COVID-19 vaccine and if/how it’ll impact the Cougars on the field this fall.

Rolovich may shut down questions regarding his vaccination status and steer reporters onto other topics – he’s certainly not obligated to provide an answer – but he should also understand how that approach might be received, and how it may actually draw more attention to an issue WSU administrators would surely rather squash.

Nonetheless, non-WSU-affiliated reporters who’ve often disregarded the Cougars at Media Day in favor of higher-profile schools such as USC and Oregon, and other pressing conference-wide topics, will be at their seats, armed with questions when Rolovich’s face pops up on a Zoom screen at 9:20 a.m. Tuesday.

Outside of conference realignment and potential recruiting violations at Arizona State, there may not be a more intriguing storyline at Media Day this year than the one involving WSU and its second-year coach. There’s no way for the Cougars to sidestep the conversation at this point, but how it evolves will ultimately depend on the manner in which Rolovich and his players address the topic on Tuesday with new commissioner George Kliavkoff and virtually everyone in the conference looking on.

The race for QB1

Had it not been for Rolovich’s tweet last Wednesday, WSU’s looming quarterback battle would’ve returned to Media Day as the top Cougar storyline for the fourth year running.

When the Cougars open fall camp at some point in the next week or two, returning starter Jayden de Laura, backup Cammon Cooper and graduate transfer Jarrett Guarantano will conceivably have equal opportunities to win the team’s No. 1 job.

It’s our guess all three will share reps for the first week/two weeks of fall camp until coaches narrow the competition down to two players. Those two will trade blows for another week or two until the Cougars identify a starter, theoretically at least one week before the season opener against Utah State.

Rolovich won’t be able to offer much more intel on the QB battle than he did after the final day of spring camp, but Media Day serves as somewhat of a checkpoint.

If any of the QBs made significant strides in the weight room, learning the offense on paper or, in de Laura’s case, earning back the trust of his teammates after serving a suspension during spring camp, Rolovich may be able to relay that information to reporters.

It’s unclear where de Laura or Cooper spent their summer, or what their offseason training regimens entailed, but an article from The Athletic revealed Guarantano spent at least a portion of his summer in Southern California working with QB guru Jordan Palmer, who’s mentored NFL signal-callers such as Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen, Sam Darnold and Joe Burrow, among others.

Impact of NIL

New rules allowing athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness are still less than a month old, and 24 of the Pac-12’s most marketable football players will be in attendance for Tuesday’s gathering.

WSU’s Borghi and Woods will join a group of heralded Pac-12 stars that also includes USC quarterback Kedon Slovis, Oregon defensive lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux and Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels.

While many athletes, both in the Pac-12 and elsewhere, await sponsorship opportunities that best fit them and their individual brand, others have already agreed to endorsement deals – some with smaller-scale businesses in their hometowns or college towns and others with nationally recognizable companies such as Raising Cane’s and T-Mobile.

Borghi recently announced a partnership with the video messaging platform Cameo, which allows celebrities to send customized videos to fans for a fixed price. WSU’s beloved senior RB will have an opportunity Tuesday to talk about the impact of NIL, sponsorship deals he’s signed or those that may be in the works and the motivation behind sharing 100% of Cameo proceeds with the Cougars’ starting offensive line.

Additionally, most Pac-12 coaches haven’t answered NIL-specific questions in a public setting since the NCAA announced its interim NIL policy in early July. They’ll get their fill Tuesday, though.

Wideout worries

The Cougars expected to enter the 2021 season with plenty of talent, and even more depth, at wide receiver. With COVID-19 rules affording seniors another year of eligibility, WSU had a chance to return all four starters and 1,019 yards of production from the four-game 2020 season.

With news coming Friday that Renard Bell tore his ACL, forcing the starting Y receiver to miss the season in its entirety, and both Jamire Calvin and Lucas Bacon leaving the program, WSU’s receiving corps is down to just one returning starter in 2021 and 415 yards of returning production.

WSU’s starting QB will either be de Laura, one of the nation’s youngest returners, or someone who’s never started a game in Rolovich’s offense, and a productive, experienced receiving corps should have been a luxury for the man under center.

Instead, the Cougars won’t just have to cram to find the person who’ll be throwing the passes this fall, but also the ones who’ll be catching them. Bodies won’t be in short supply. The Cougars should have plenty to choose from, with more than a dozen scholarship receivers on the roster and two or three walk-ons who looked promising in the spring.

But none is as experienced as Bell, who’s played a role in 30 wins during his time with the Cougars, and it’s possible none has the top-end talent of Calvin, who was constantly praised by coaches near the end of the season as someone who was finding his rhythm in Rolovich’s run-and-shoot.

The magnitude of those losses may not be felt until the Cougars take the field in September, but on Tuesday we should at least get a sense of how Rolovich feels about the group as a whole, and who may be best equipped to step into starting roles this fall.

Woods’ weightlifting feat

On June 24, Woods generated buzz on social media when the all-conference linebacker posted a Twitter video of himself muscling a trap deadlift bar loaded with 704 pounds off the ground.

Woods dropped the bar, paused for about 15 seconds and gripped the handles before making another successful attempt at the same weight. When Woods was recruited to play in Alex Grinch’s defense, he was classified as a speed specialist who’d have to rely on his track background – and a lot of work in the weight room – to get on the field in the Pac-12

Now in year six, the San Diego native is able to deadlift more than three times his body weight at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, and apparently hasn’t lost the footspeed that made him such an attractive fit in Grinch’s “Speed D” scheme.

In a comment on Woods’ deadlift video, teammate and WSU cornerback Jaylen Watson indicated the linebacker was clocked at 21 mph by the Catapult speed-tracking system the Cougars have utilized under new strength and conditioning coach Dwain Bradshaw.

Reporters who’ve seen the video will be eager to hear more about Woods’ transformation this offseason, how one of the league’s oldest players plans to approach his sixth and final season in Pullman and, more generally, where WSU’s defense (38.5 ppg allowed in 2020) needs to improve to guarantee more success this fall.

Pertaining to the weightlifting feats, Woods has already received a challenge from Pac-12 Networks analyst Yogi Roth, who tweeted “Let’s do this on set at @Pac12Network Media Days. You have 705 lbs, we will do 5 lbs :)”

According to Cougfan.com, Woods, who represented the Cougars at the last in-person Media Day in 2019 along with offensive lineman Liam Ryan, will be the only WSU player to make a repeat appearance since the inaugural event in 1991.

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