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Washington State offense can rally around rapidly developing quarterback in Jayden de Laura

Washington State Cougars quarterback Jayden de Laura (4) throws the ball against Brigham Young during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, Oct. 23 at Gesa Field in Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – A few hours after word got out that football coach Nick Rolovich had been dismissed from his post at Washington State, the team’s young quarterback made a mature statement.

Sophomore Jayden de Laura wasn’t obligated to speak on the situation so soon, and he probably didn’t want to at the time.

De Laura considers Rolovich a mentor, and he’d made that clear. Now, he would have to get by without one of his daily guiding figures.

He was undoubtedly devastated by the news. But de Laura seems to have grasped the responsibilities that come with his position, and he understands the importance of a quarterback’s voice of reassurance.

So he took the opportunity to lead.

The second-year starter from Hawaii penned a message and released it via his attorney before later posting it to Twitter on the same evening as the program’s coaching shake-up.

It was received well within the WSU community, and well-written. It addressed the school, the Cougars’ former coaches, the fans and de Laura’s teammates.

He opened with a line about the team’s “profound sadness and disappointment” with the termination of Rolovich and four WSU assistants, all of whom failed to meet the requirements of a state COVID-19 vaccination mandate and were fired at around 5 p.m. on Oct. 18.

De Laura, writing both from his individual perspective and using “we” and “our,” called it an honor to play for Rolovich. He thanked his coach for showing trust and offering counsel as de Laura developed personally and athletically.

He said the team “strongly” disagrees with the result.

Then he took the note in a different direction and set an example, calling on the Cougars to come together.

“We also understand that Cougar Football has always been bigger than any one person,” he wrote. “We are a band of brothers who play and sacrifice for each other, no matter who the head coach is. We have never been about one person or any one name on the back of the jersey. We have been and will always be about the logo and the pride that all of us share in being part of the Cougar family.”

De Laura asked the WSU faithful to continue supporting the team after concluding his thoughts with a reminder that change is difficult, and the Cougars are going through an especially tough one.

De Laura’s poise and ever-expanding leadership qualities will be crucial if WSU plans on pocketing a few more wins, qualifying for the postseason and keeping this program aiming in a positive direction despite all of the recent upheaval.

“I just wanted to put something out there to show our team that we still gotta go out there and play,” de Laura said of his letter on Tuesday, during his first media availability since Rolovich’s departure. “Yeah, something sad happened where we lost our coaches. But at the end of the day, we still gotta go out there and finish the season.”

De Laura is becoming somewhat of a folk hero in a season that began with him playing second fiddle to Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano, who won a preseason QB competition before sustaining an injury in Week 1.

De Laura recaptured the starting role and never looked back, proving quickly to Rolovich that he was mentally prepared to captain WSU’s run-and-shoot offense. Rolovich said he’d been uncertain about de Laura’s maturity before then.

Since the opener, de Laura has started every game except one, missing the Sept. 25 road matchup with Utah because of a leg injury.

He’s first in the Pac-12 in passing touchdowns with 15 – against six picks – and second in yards (1,733). There have been some of the misfires and mental mistakes typical of an underclassman, but the pros have outweighed the cons by a notable margin.

De Laura was solid at Cal, exceptional in a shootout versus Oregon State and gutsy in a seesaw thriller against Stanford – three consecutive WSU wins.

It’s evident that the Cougars follow the spirited field general and receive an emotional boost when de Laura is in a rhythm with this unique offensive system – as he is more often than not.

“Early in the season, we were looking for that one guy, that one leader,” new interim coach Jake Dickert said last week on his WSU coach’s show. “Now, without a doubt, those guys are rallying around Jayden. They love him. They’ll fight for him, they’ll scrap. They just believe in him.”

Asked Tuesday about his burgeoning leadership traits, de Laura credited Rolovich and former co-offensive coordinator/QBs coach Craig Stutzmann for “giving me the chance to grow through the whole spring, even though I was out,” he said. De Laura was suspended throughout spring ball after he was hit with DUI charges in February, of which he was eventually found not guilty.

“As a person off the field, they gave me that opportunity, so when I came back, it was easier for me to be a leader on the field,” de Laura said. “I appreciate them.”

There was a period of adjustment last week. The Cougars were conducting training sessions on Rogers Field without half of their coaching staff.

After meeting with WSU’s captains, Dickert felt it would be wise to let his most dependable athletes set the pace during practices and use a player-led routine to re-establish normalcy. De Laura was one of a handful of Cougars to take point.

“I’d say last week took some adjusting for us,” de Laura said. “OK, these coaches ain’t out here, but it took a bigger role upon me and the older guys on the team to become more of leaders, and control the practices pretty much ourselves.

“Our team kind of just came together and we were like, ‘We gotta move on. We’ve got a game on Saturday and we still got half a season to finish.’ It was tough, but I think we’re back on track.”

De Laura completed 26 of 37 passes for 257 yards in a 21-19 nonconference loss to BYU on Saturday. He spearheaded three methodical scoring drives and was accurate on shallow throws to slotbacks, but missed on a few long balls, was intercepted once and had another off-target toss dropped by a safety.

“I felt like that kind of hurt us in the second half when we needed (a big play),” de Laura said. “So that’s all on me.”

De Laura isn’t being fair to himself, because he was better than might have been predicted. The run-and-shoot’s top man was gone, and so was its play-caller in Stutzmann, who was also terminated Oct. 18.

Offensive coordinator Brian Smith assumed play-calling duties for the first game in four weeks, and he was presumably still settling back into that function. Although the offense had stretches of free-flowing success, the Cougars’ pace of play slowed up significantly. Smith had been replaced as WSU’s play-caller in late September after an inconsistent start to the year.

New QBs coach Dan Morrison – a run-and-shoot vet – had only been in Pullman for a few days.

De Laura had been boosting his teammates throughout this season, and they returned the favor Saturday by helping him through the coaching turnover.

“Something that stayed the same was just the communication from the players’ aspect – the O-line coming to talk to me, the receivers coming to talk to me, see what they see out there,” de Laura said, then name-dropped every QB. “Jarrett (Guarantano), Xavier Ward, Victor (Gabalis) and Cammon (Cooper), they all played a big role with coach Stutz not being there. Coach Dan is still trying to learn all our play-calling. They played a big role helping me every time I came off the field.”

De Laura pledged to WSU in October 2019, about three months before Mike Leach left WSU for the Mississippi State job.

When Rolovich was hired in January 2020, de Laura reaffirmed his commitment to the program. While at the helm of Hawaii’s program (2016-19), the new Cougars boss had been recruiting the Honolulu product for years. The run-and-shoot was already familiar to de Laura, who played as a prep QB in the system at Saint Louis School – a 10-minute drive from the UH campus.

The two clicked almost instantly and de Laura started every game in WSU’s truncated 2020 season.

De Laura supported Rolovich staunchly throughout the controversial narrative surrounding the coach’s stance on the vaccine mandate.

“I love him to death,” de Laura said Oct. 9 after WSU topped Oregon State. “I’d do anything for him.”

Now de Laura will be asked to finish out this unnatural season with the same guidance and composure he’d been showing before the structure around him changed.

New mentors

De Laura is early in the process of building a rapport with the new head coach in Dickert, the Cougars’ second-year defensive coordinator.

“At the beginning of the season, we’d never really crossed paths – he was with the defense,” de Laura said after Tuesday’s practice. “I’d say he’s really professional and just himself out there on the field, which I really like. He’s not trying to be too nice.”

De Laura’s family has a background with Morrison. The QB’s uncle, Mel de Laura, worked as a strength and conditioning coach in past years alongside Morrison under run-and-shoot guru June Jones at both Hawaii and SMU.

Mel de Laura phoned his nephew recently, telling him Morrison “is a good guy and I’ve got to take in whatever tips he gives me,” Jayden de Laura said.

“It’s tough,” he added of losing his position coach, “but it’s kind of good for me. I really like (Morrison) as a person. As a coach, he doesn’t really say too much, but when he does, it means a lot.”