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‘Let’s do what these guys know.’ Washington State interim coach Jake Dickert strives to keep Cougars united, consistent

Washington State defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jake Dickert, center, stands on the field during a break in play in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Pullman, Wash. Dickert was named Washington State interim head coach, Monday, Oct. 18 after head coach Nick Rolovich was fired for refusing a state mandate that all employees get vaccinated against COVID-19.  (Associated Press)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Thrust at midseason into the first head-coaching role of his career, Jake Dickert is “going to stick to the plan.”

Washington State’s second-year defensive coordinator received a phone call at around 5 p.m. Monday from athletic director Pat Chun, who asked Dickert to lead the Cougars as interim coach in the wake of Nick Rolovich’s termination for his failure to comply with a state COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

Dickert was candid and offered words of encouragement when addressing media members during a 30-minute news conference Tuesday. The themes of the newly minted boss’ talk were “faith, trust and belief.”

In order to reestablish those foundations amid a tumultuous time for the program, Dickert will strive for consistency.

“I believe, when you go into situations like this, let’s not try to be cute,” he said. “Let’s do what these guys know, let’s see what they understand. Let’s let them play fast.

“From a coaching standpoint, an X’s and O’s standpoint, we’re going to give our guys an opportunity to do what they do best. I believe we’re one of the most explosive offenses out there, and they’re playing with great confidence. Defensively, I think our staple is playing hard, playing fast and playing together. Those would be the principles we’ll rely on come Saturday.”

Dickert, 38, takes the reins with WSU (4-3, 3-2 Pac-12) on a hot streak and preparing to welcome BYU on Saturday.

But this season’s prospects have been thrown into question. The Cougs are in uncharted territory.

Along with Rolovich, four WSU assistants were let go because they hadn’t complied with the state’s mandate, which required Washington’s educational employees to either receive a COVID-19 vaccine or an approved exemption request by Monday.

WSU’s staff has lost co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Craig Stutzmann, offensive line coach Mark Weber, cornerbacks coach John Richardson and defensive line coach Ricky Logo.

Dickert will retain his duties as DC while “shuffling around some responsibilities” elsewhere on the defensive side of the ball among remaining assistants Mark Banker (safeties) and A.J. Cooper (edges).

“With our players and the unit, and what we’ve created, those guys deserve my best,” Dickert said of WSU’s ever-improving defense, which seems to have grasped his inventive strategies and is playing its most inspired ball in recent memory.

Dickert also coached linebackers previously, but he’ll be delegating a bit more on that front.

“I sat down with them yesterday and said, ‘Things might look a little different daily, but I’m still here for you,’ ” he said.

Concerning the vacant assistant posts, Dickert said the Cougs are “very, very close” to filling those jobs.

WSU will likely promote a graduate assistant or two, he indicated, and make a few hires from the outside.

“We’ve got a couple of people going through some processes, and we’re still vetting a couple of guys,” Dickert said, “as well as some people I think have earned a lot of trust and belief through their actions within our program.”

WSU intends to settle on its new assistants later this week, Dickert said.

“What I guaranteed our players is (the new coaches) are not here to replace (Rolovich). You can’t do that,” Dickert said. “These men are willing to put players first and are going to come in and help them. This is a tough position to walk into, even for the most veteran of coaches.”

The Cougars’ unique run-and-shoot offense suffered a major blow with the departure of Rolovich – one of few coaches to employ the system – and Stutzmann, another run-and-shoot guru who had taken over primary play-calling duties three weeks ago.

Offensive coordinator Brian Smith, who played alongside Rolovich at Hawaii and worked as his OC for the past five years, will surely slide back into his role as WSU’s play-caller.

“He’s been put in a tough situation and I think he has a clear plan going forward,” Dickert said of Smith. “I really respect him. He lost people he really cares about, too. He’s put all that aside and he really has a clear vision for our players and what the plan is.”

The complexities of the run-and-shoot have been absorbed by WSU’s players. After a slow start, the system is suddenly flowing free, and Dickert doesn’t anticipate it being watered down at all. He affirmed that the Cougs’ offensive schematics and strategy will not change.

Naturally, he’ll have to be more involved now. He’ll view the offense through a defensive lens, though.

“Our guys are confident in what we do (on offense) and excited about what we do, and it fits our guys really well,” he said.

“There’s little places where I think I want to poke and look at, just from my seat and my perspective – try to find a way to help (the offense) in any way I can.”

Dickert, a former prep quarterback in Wisconsin and standout receiver at Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point, said he’ll coordinate closely with Smith in certain in-game situations. He’ll try to get a read on opposing defensive formations and tendencies, and quickly relay those details to his OC.

While acting solely as a DC, Dickert didn’t often watch WSU’s offensive possessions because he was busy game-planning with his defenders.

“My wife will ask me, ‘Did you see that offensive play?’ No, I never see it,” he said earlier this month. “Even when they’re punting, we’re adjusting, we’re talking about things.”

Dickert knows uncertainty and doubt will creep in among the players. But if the Cougars can stick to his coaching cornerstones – faith, trust and belief – then they’ll stay consistent with their recent successes and ultimately reach “the goal still ahead of us.”

That goal being a postseason berth and, optimistically, a Pac-12 North crown. Despite their discouraging start and extraordinary midseason coaching shakeup, Dickert is hopeful about the Cougars’ future.

Keeping this wounded WSU team united is his “No. 1 job.”

“I know there’s a group of men in that locker room that are used to hearing my voice, but half the team still needs to have faith and belief that I have their best interests in mind,” said Dickert, a former Wyoming DC and 14-year coaching veteran. “And I need to prove that to them every day.

“I need to continue to show them I’m here for them. Every move we make going forward is with their best interests in mind.”

Multiple recent reports have pegged Dickert as a head coaching candidate by virtue of his work in guiding a defensive resurgence at WSU.

Athletic director Pat Chun told John Canzano on a radio show Tuesday that Dickert will be considered for the Cougars’ job, depending on how this season goes.

“As we started contingency planning, it was pretty evident really, really quickly that the best course of action would be to put coach Dickert into this active coaching role,” Chun said Tuesday during the WSU news conference.