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Washington State football: Cougars use late bye week to game plan, recruit, rejuvenate

Washington State interim head coach Jake Dickert and his team celebrate a missed field goal by Arizona State during the first half of a Pac-12 game Saturday, Oct. 30 in Tempe, Ariz. The Cougars are on a bye after opening the season with nine consecutive game weeks.  (Associated Press)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – The past nine weeks have been a whirlwind for Washington State’s football team, and the Cougars are finally getting a moment to decompress.

But because there’s a consequential matchup against No. 4 Oregon on the horizon, and there are recruiting matters to tend to, WSU won’t see a ton of downtime in this late bye week.

“I told the guys, ‘When we get out there (on the practice field), we need to work – your energy systems need that,’ ” interim Cougars coach Jake Dickert said Monday. “We can’t come out sleepy against Oregon. That’ll never work.”

WSU (5-4, 4-2 Pac-12) conducted moderate lifting drills Monday before an NCAA-mandated day off Tuesday for voting. Wednesday and Thursday were reserved for practice sessions, which featured dialed-back contact and extra snaps for reserve players.

“If you’re a 2 or 3 (backups), you need to get better, sharpen your iron,” Dickert said.

Nine Cougar coaches will hit the road Friday to “touch on all our commitments and fill our board a little bit,” Dickert said.

During practices this week, the Cougars mostly game-planned for the Ducks and fine-tuned their fundamentals and communication with their new-look coaching staff.

“We’ll trim it down a little bit, take the contact away, especially for some of the older guys,” Dickert said. “Let’s get the looks, let’s communicate some of the adjustments and get our base schemes in.”

Dickert would like to have “90% of the game plan” for UO installed after Saturday’s light practice.

“So then next week is just cleaning it up – it’s second repetitions, it’s making sure, mentally, we’re really sharp on what we want to do so we can perform our best,” he said.

On the recruiting trail, Dickert will be joined in Washington by offensive coordinator Brian Smith and special teams coordinator Kyle Krantz.

Defensive line coach A.J. Cooper heads to California; receivers coach Andre Allen (Georgia) and cornerbacks coach Jordan Malone (Florida) travel to the Southeast; and covering Texas will be safeties coach Mark Banker, offensive assistant Dan Ferrigno and Justin Mesa, WSU’s director of transfer recruiting.

Recently hired assistants Dan Morrison (quarterbacks) and Dennis McKnight (offensive line) haven’t been cleared by the NCAA to travel for recruiting purposes, Dickert said.

Maintaining a foothold in the Evergreen State is crucial. Dickert stressed that point.

“I’m going to be raising the flag in Washington,” he said. “It’s important to me, it’s important to us and important to our program. I’m going to be around some high schools in Washington and seeing some guys. I’m excited to do that, excited to meet coaches, just excited to expand our brand around the state.

“It’s important to understand that this is our home base. Washington kids are important to our program and will be extremely important going forward. … Pullman, Washington, embodies the Washington spirit, and the Cougar spirit takes that all into account.”

Because of past coronavirus-related recruiting restrictions and this season’s unusually late bye week, Dickert said, WSU’s staffers have not had a chance to take recruitment trips and scour schools for talent since being hired in early 2020.

They aren’t permitted to speak with potential prep prospects on these visits but will evaluate players while attending games and build relationships with coaches.

“We’ll be going out really to get our first time in schools,” Dickert said.

“This will be the first time since I’ve been here to be able to do that. It’s kind of amazing to say that.”

Injury notes

The bye week provides WSU’s players a much-needed rejuvenation heading into the homestretch of the season, and it presents an opportunity for a couple of Cougars to get back to playing health.

“We gotta compete this week. If your competition is getting your body right, emotion is medicine and you’ve gotta make sure you’re doing that,” Dickert said.

Right guard Cade Beresford sustained an unspecified lower-body injury about midway through WSU’s 34-21 win over Arizona State on Saturday. He wore a walking boot on the sideline throughout the second half.

Sophomore Ma’ake Fifita replaced Beresford, a junior first-year starter who was in the midst of a string of impressive performances.

“Hopefully, with this bye week, he should be ready in a couple of weeks,” Dickert said. “We feel confident he’ll be back out there and ready, and he’ll do everything he can to be ready a couple of weeks from now.”

Dickert said Oct. 25 that he expected free safety Halid Djibril to go through some rehab drills at practices ahead of the ASU game. Djibril started WSU’s first two games but has not played since suffering a leg injury Sept. 11 against Portland State.

Cougar quarterback Jayden de Laura said that he’s looking forward to “relaxing my body, getting my mental back to where it needs to be.”

But overall, he’s “really not a fan of a bye week” because there’s a risk that the pause in action prompts a dip in energy. That’s what WSU is trying to avoid.

“A lot of teams treat it like an off week, but our mindset coming into this week is still work,” defensive tackle Amir Mujahid said. “We get a couple of days off, but every time we’re on that field, we work and grind like we’ve been doing.

“Oregon’s a tough opponent. This is one of the biggest games of the year, so we’re trying to do everything in our power to prepare for that.”

‘The spirits are high’

The Cougars have won four of their past five, including one of their most memorable victories in recent memory: the runaway in the desert, last Saturday’s 34-21 win at Arizona State.

Despite the shaky start to the year and the midseason coaching turnover, their goals – a postseason berth and a Pac-12 North title, perhaps – have not slipped away.

“The spirits are high and the momentum is strong,” Dickert said. “The biggest message I had to them is, ‘Great teams play themselves into meaningful November games.’

“They’re well aware of what’s ahead. Let’s take it one game at a time. Let’s win each day in this bye week.”

The players rallied around each other as WSU steered this season’s narrative in a positive direction.

“Like a family, we came together and leaned on each other,” de Laura said.

The enthusiasm has been evident on the sidelines during WSU’s past two games. Practice footage released by WSU’s social media team this week has portrayed a buoyant environment.

Players capped practice Thursday with a kicking competition between nonkickers. Brennan Jackson pelted fellow edge Willie Taylor III with a low, line-drive boot, eliciting a roar of laughter from the Cougars.

On Wednesday, Dickert staged a teamwide rock-paper-scissors competition. Surrounded closely by the entire team, long-snapper Simon Samarzich defeated slot Travell Harris for the crown.

“Just those little things help us come together more as a team, and it makes it feel like a family and creates our bond to be really strong,” de Laura said. “I really like what coach Dickert is setting up for the team.”