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Six reasons why 2022 could be a banner year for Washington State at the NFL draft

From 2015-17, the University of Hawaii’s football team lost twice as many games (26) as it won (13) and didn’t have a single player taken in three consecutive NFL drafts (2016, 2017, 2018).

Nick Rolovich doesn’t believe that should be the only tool – or even the most useful one – to measure the success of a college football program, but Washington State’s second-year coach also thinks it can serve an important purpose.

Rolovich’s transformation of Hawaii football began to take shape in 2018, when the Rainbow Warriors won eight games and had two players selected in the 2019 NFL draft.

That broke the program’s longest drought since Hawaii went five years without someone drafted from 1994-99.

In the fall of 2019, Rolovich led the Rainbow Warriors to a 10-win season and their quarterback, Cole McDonald, was selected in the seventh round of the 2020 NFL draft.

“I think that’s fine to look into it, I think it does have come correlation,” Rolovich said after WSU’s final spring practice, which coincided with the first day of the 2021 draft.

“I think your sample size of years is not judged on one or two years,” Rolovich said. “I think you start seeing consistency year in and year out of guys getting drafted. I think that’s when you feel like you’re doing everything you promised these kids to give them an opportunity to get to the NFL, as they’re sticking a degree in their pocket, walking out of here with rings and hopefully getting to the combine and getting drafted.

“I don’t want anybody on this team that doesn’t want to get drafted or want to keep working to get drafted. … I know next year, we get a few guys drafted, that’ll feel good. That’ll be good for the program.”

Largely due to COVID-19 circumstances, and a truncated four-game season that limited opportunities for players to gain NFL exposure, WSU was one of just two teams in the Pac-12 Conference without someone selected in the 2021 NFL draft, ending an eight-year streak.

But with a group of high-level Pac-12 starters choosing to return for an extra season, 2022 could be a banner year for WSU at the draft. It should be noted that the pool of draft-eligible players will also be larger than ever, with a handful of seniors across the country using a COVID year. Still, the Cougars have two players who’d seem to be shoo-ins for the 2022 draft and others with the chance to climb their way into the conversation. If three WSU players are drafted, it would match the most in a single year since 2005.

Below, we rank six Cougars who have a chance to hear their name called next year.

1. Abe Lucas, offensive tackle

WSU’s right tackle passed up a chance to leave school early and may climb into the top three rounds of the 2022 draft if he can routinely wall off the Pac-12’s top edge rushers – one more round with Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux should be intriguing – and use the fall season to improve his run-blocking. Lucas told reporters he plans to dedicate his summer to film study and taking a more cerebral approach to the game, rather than relying solely on his mammoth 6-foot-7, 319-pound frame. On Thursday, Reese’s Senior Bowl Director Jim Nagy tweeted a teaser of his 2022 prospect board, showing Lucas’ name along with 15 others. Picking up an invite to Mobile, Alabama, would be a good start for the senior, considering the last three WSU tackles to play in the Senior Bowl – Andre Dillard, Cole Madison and Joe Dahl – all heard their names called in the draft.

2. Max Borghi, running back

It seems that if Borghi can have a season at least similar to those in 2018 and 2019, the production alone should be enough to get the senior running back drafted. But if Borghi can rush for 1,000 yards or more, prove he can be an effective run-blocker at the next level – something he’ll do more of in Rolovich’s run-and-shoot – and nab a Senior Bowl invite, that may be the difference between the Colorado native going in the first four rounds, as opposed to the final three. It also wouldn’t hurt if Christian McCaffrey, the tailback to whom Borghi’s routinely compared and with whom he’s trained back home in the Denver suburbs, put together another superb season for the Carolina Panthers. As of now, Borghi isn’t widely considered to be one of the 10 best RBs in the 2022 draft class, but that’s largely due to playing just one game of an already-shortened 2020 season, and mock drafts one week after the draft mean even less than the ones that come out a week before it.

3. Jaylen Watson, cornerback

The unknown of Watson is what should make him such a compelling player to follow this fall. It’s possible he won’t be drafted at all, but it’s also possible he puts together an All-American-caliber season and climbs into Day 2 of the 2022 event. Watson’s WSU career is just three games old, but fans saw glimpses of what his ceiling could be during the Cougars’ season finale at Utah, in which the junior college transfer made five tackles (including one TFL), broke up a pass and both forced and recovered a fumble. At 6-3, Watson has an NFL-ready frame and stands taller than all but four of the 38 corners taken in the 2021 draft. Watson’s biggest problem is exposure. Those in WSU’s football operations building know what the former USC signee is capable of and strength coach Dwain Bradshaw recently labeled him as the team’s most-improved player in the wright room. Watson needs to perform on Saturdays and if he does, don’t be surprised to see the Georgia native shoot up mock draft boards.

4. Jahad Woods, linebacker

Many will point to Woods’ size as a limiting factor when it comes to his chances of reaching the next level. Entering his sixth and final season at WSU, Woods is listed at 6-1 and 225 pounds. For comparison’s sake, here are measurables of some linebackers taken in the 2021 draft: Boston College’s Isaiah McDuffie (6-1, 227), Michigan’s Cameron McGrone (6-1, 234), Auburn’s K.J. Britt (6-1, 235), TCU’s Garret Wallow (6-2, 220), West Virginia’s Tony Fields II (6-0, 222), Texas A&M’s Buddy Johnson (6-1, 229), Georgia’s Monty Rice (6-0, 233) and Missouri’s Nick Bolton (5-11, 237). In a game that’s becoming increasingly faster, there seems to be less of a need for big, broad-shouldered linebackers, and it could help Woods’ chances of being drafted next spring. He’s a sure tackler who’ll have a chance to climb into the school’s all-time top five for career tackles and needs just two forced fumbles this fall to become the career leader in that category.

5. Liam Ryan, offensive tackle

Although Ryan won’t collect the same predraft buzz as his fellow offensive tackle, Lucas, it’ll be interesting to see if the sixth-year senior can pick up more traction as an NFL prospect this fall. Ryan has the height to play offensive tackle at the next level, but the majority of linemen taken in the recent draft weighed in at 310-340 pounds, and WSU’s website lists him at 293. What could help Ryan woo NFL suitors is his versatility. In 2018, he was a 13-game starter at left guard for one of the most dynamic offenses in school history, and was considered the sixth-best pass-blocking guard in the country by Pro Football Focus. In 2019, he made the switch to left tackle and provided solid protection despite incurring a few too many penalties – an issue he eventually corrected. Ryan’s intangibles should help him in the predraft process and the ability to play guard and tackle could make him a more coveted prospect for teams needing bodies at both positions.

6. Travell Harris, wide receiver

Is Harris big enough to play at the next level? In many ways, WSU’s slot receiver could be fighting the same stigma as the last two players we mentioned. But Harris, at 5-9 and 182 pounds, also wouldn’t have been the smallest receiver in a 2021 draft that included Purdue’s Rondale Moore (5-7, 181), Louisville’s Tutu Atwell (5-9, 155), North Texas’ Jaelon Darden (5-8, 174) and UCLA’s Demetric Felton (5-9, 186). Harris was often the fourth-most targeted WR in Mike Leach’s Air Raid, but as the Cougars transition to the run-and-shoot, he emerged as one of the team’s top weapons, scoring touchdowns last year from his “H” receiver spot, out of the Wildcat formation and on an inside handoff. Rolovich has indicated he’ll find more ways to get the ball in Harris’ hands this season and he could have a chance to lead the Pac-12 in all-purpose yards if he continues to field punts and kickoffs. Perhaps an NFL team that thinks it can use Harris in multiple dimensions will grab him in a later round.

Other hopefuls…

Jarrett Guarantano, QB: Hold your horses, Vols fans. Guarantano has to win the job first and even then, one season may not be enough to overcome his miscues in the SEC. But two of WSU’s last four starters were drafted and the other two found NFL homes through free agency. Gardner Minshew’s graduate season demonstrated anything is possible and he was a less-heralded player than Guarantano when both arrived in Pullman.

Deon McIntosh, RB: If McIntosh was in more of a featured role, he’d have a better chance of boosting his draft stock, but as long as Borghi stays healthy, he’ll have to make the most of the reps he gets. No matter, McIntosh looked every bit of a starting Pac-12 running back last fall and if he can add 5-10 more pounds, his stature would be comparable to many of the RBs that were just drafted.

Renard Bell, WR: Bell’s smaller than Harris and doesn’t have the explosive speed or change of direction his teammate possesses, but the senior could finish in the school’s all-time top 10 for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

Daniel Isom, SS: He may not do any one thing at an top-end level, but Isom played well enough to capture All-Pac-12 honorable mention during the shortened 2020 season, and should parlay that into more success this fall.