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Sports >  WSU football

WSU grades: How the Cougars’ position groups stack up as the team hits the home stretch of their season

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 28, 2021

Washington State slotback Calvin Jackson Jr. (8) hauls in a touchdown pass against Stanford during the first half of a Pac-12 game Saturday, Oct. 16 at Gesa Field in Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. Jackson ranks second in the conference with 528 receiving yards.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State slotback Calvin Jackson Jr. (8) hauls in a touchdown pass against Stanford during the first half of a Pac-12 game Saturday, Oct. 16 at Gesa Field in Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. Jackson ranks second in the conference with 528 receiving yards. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Washington State’s football team is on the home stretch, two-thirds of the way through its season.

The results have been mixed for the Cougars (4-4, 3-2 Pac-12), hence the record.

WSU hasn’t been thoroughly exceptional in any one facet of the game, but none of the Cougars’ position groups has been wholly bad either.

What follows is a ranking of WSU’s positions, including quick evaluations and grades for each.

Quarterbacks: B

The Cougars are motivated by their young QB in Jayden de Laura, the fiery sophomore who’s shown an ability to take over games when he’s in a groove with the run-and-shoot offense.

De Laura has emerged as arguably one of the Pac-12’s top signal-callers.

He has tremendous potential as a Cougars QB. He leads the Pac-12 with 15 touchdowns and ranks second in the conference at 247.6 yards per game. Imagine what he’d look like if he sticks around in Pullman for a couple of more years.

Interim coach Jake Dickert commended de Laura for his advanced leadership traits.

In just his second year as a collegiate starter, the Hawaiian has become a guiding figure for the experience-laden Cougars.

“He’s constantly learning, but I think on the football field you see something he’s really passionate about and he’s gotten better daily at saying, ‘Hey, my voice matters. How I practice, how I prepare, my body language – it matters. And it affects everyone around me,’ ” Dickert said Wednesday.

“It’s cool to see his maturation, but also the trust the men around him have in him. We can build something really strong around Jayden, and that’s through his confidence.”

De Laura exhibits a big arm, mobility and the kind of conviction in play that you might expect of an upperclassmen.

He’s taken criticism for sometimes trusting his throws too much, and misfiring deep into dangerous spots. His backups haven’t done much to inspire hope if de Laura were to miss any more time with an injury.

Running backs: C+

No disrespect to Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh, both of whom might be playing pro ball a year from now, but the Cougars’ run game has been underwhelming – especially considering the caliber of talent .

WSU ranks 10th in the Pac-12 at 108.8 ground yards per game and has been held under the 100-yard mark in half of its contests this season. The Cougars run the ball conservatively and only have topped 120 yards in two outings, rushing for 149 in Week 1 against Utah State and 159 in Week 2 versus FCS Portland State.

But Borghi and McIntosh are combining for a solid average of 4.9 yards per carry.

The RB room’s grade received a bump over the past two weeks, when Borghi set career highs in carries in back-to-back games, totaling 172 yards and five touchdowns on 35 attempts against Stanford and BYU with McIntosh sidelined by an apparent ankle injury.

It’d be fair to point out that the run-and-shoot offense has historically been pass-heavy by about a 60-40 ratio.

Still, with the skill WSU has at tailback, you can’t blame Cougar fans for wondering why their team hasn’t made it a point to up the carries.

Injuries have played a part in WSU’s struggles running the ball, but the Cougars plan to be at full health against Arizona State.

Wide receivers: B+

The pass-catchers receive the highest mark, and they’d probably get an “A” if there was a little more production from the outside receivers.

The Cougars’ corps of slotbacks has been stellar all season, and it seems to be only getting better.

Veteran slots Calvin Jackson Jr. and Travell Harris are consistently reliable threats, electrifying players who have a knack for fashioning chunk gains and highlights. They rank second and third, respectively, in the Pac-12 at 528 and 525 yards receiving, and they have combined for nine touchdowns.

Backup slots Lincoln Victor and Joey Hobert appear to be on the rise in an offense that tends to flow through its inside receivers.

De Laura too often has to rely on the slotbacks to make underneath grabs and slip past a defender or two for yards after the catch.

The smaller, shiftier slots have combined for 121 receptions, while the lengthier targets on the outsides in freshman De’Zhaun Stribling and sophomore Donovan Ollie have totaled 42 catches.

The Cougars have not had any of their reserve outside receivers break out.

Offensive line: B-

WSU’s hogs permitted 15 sacks – including a season-worst eight at Utah on Sept. 25 – through the first four games .

Yet the big men have settled in since, conceding five sacks over the past four matchups.

After surrendering 17 tackles for loss in the run game in the first half of the season, WSU’s O-line has given up 11 in the past four weeks.

De Laura has worked through his progressions from the pocket over the past three weeks. Excluding plays that ended in sacks, he’s only been pressured into scrambling twice.

WSU’s O-line had a somewhat steady showing versus BYU, but it was tagged with three holding calls, which stalled out important possessions.

“In my opinion, none of those were actual holds,” tackle Abraham Lucas said.

Vets Lucas and Brian Greene have been sharp lately. Lucas, considered an NFL draft prospect, has been an immovable object at left tackle and has yet to give up a sack this year.

It felt as though the fortunes began to turn for the Cougars’ O-line when Greene returned to the starting lineup at Cal. He’d been rehabbing an injury since Week 1.

WSU also likes the effectiveness of its right guard rotation between Cade Beresford and Ma’ake Fifita.

Defensive line: B

While WSU’s edge rushers have emerged among the Pac-12’s most disruptive groups, the interior of the D-line remains a work in progress.

Standout edges Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson have led the way, spearheading an imposing Cougar pass rush that excels on third downs and in crunch-time situations. The energetic duo has accounted for 6.5 of WSU’s 15 sacks.

Pro Football Focus reported Thursday that Stone is second among all Power Five defensive ends with 12 fourth-quarter QB pressures this season.

Reinforcements like mainstay Willie Taylor III, freshman Andrew Edson and fast-improving sophomore Quinn Roff have proven themselves dependable, particularly on passing downs.

The Cougars’ run stop could use some fine-tuning, and Dickert said as much Monday.

Opponents are testing the physical play of WSU’s interior D-line with an increased emphasis on inside runs. BYU, normally a balanced offensive outfit, leaned on the tactic for 238 yards last weekend – two weeks after Oregon State rumbled for 309 ground yards.

“We need to be more physical, more aggressive, more attacking,” Dickert said of the D-tackles and linebackers. “We’ve had a lot of guys at the line of scrimmage. We’re kind of limited right now in some of the sub packages we can do with our personnel, as far as getting bigger bodies in there.”

Dickert added that he’s been pleased with the development of junior Amir Mujahid, the most productive of WSU’s group of six D-tackles, which is still finding its footing against power-run attacks.

Linebackers: C

Four of WSU’s eight opponents this season have run for over 200 yards , and a portion seems to stem from missed tackles at the second level.

Dickert was disappointed last week with the arm tackles and poor angles his LBs were taking against BYU. That’s been somewhat of a trend this season, he noted.

The linebackers have been OK, not spectacular, in shallow coverage.

Although it can’t be quantified on paper, effort is what stands out about this unit.

Starters Jahad Woods – the Pac-12’s No. 4 tackler this season (61) and one of WSU’s most prolific tacklers of all time – and Justus Rogers won’t wow onlookers with their physical attributes.

But they’re incredibly experienced, high-spirited players who distinguish themselves with intangibles. A culture based on work ethic has been established by Dickert and absorbed by the players. It’s the execution that’s been erratic.

Secondary: B

WSU’s defensive backs deserve credit for their quick transformation from problematic to respectable.

The secondary has been an area of concern in recent years. Just two seasons ago, blown coverages felt far too frequent, and the Cougars’ pass defense ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in efficiency.

So far this year, WSU sits at No. 4 in the Pac-12 in that category. Great strides have clearly been made by holdovers like nickel Armani Marsh, and safeties George Hicks III and Daniel Isom.

Sure, the Cougar DBs haven’t been facing next-level quarterbacks this season; five of WSU’s opponents were led by game-manager types. But they’ve been relatively convincing nonetheless, keeping signal-callers from Utah, Cal and Oregon State out of the end zone and holding the three to an average passing line of 149 yards on a 48.5% completion rate.

In WSU’s two most recent games, however, the DBs looked a bit lost on out routes as receivers from Stanford and BYU found sufficient space. Their QBs were scarcely forced to make difficult throws, combining to pass 39 of 53 (73.6%) for 420 yards and no interceptions.

Specialists: C+

Dean Janikowski is locked in at place-kicker, and he’s been mostly stable, connecting on 7 of 8 field goals and 22 of 24 extra-point attempts.

Through his first eight American football games, freshman Australian punter Nick Haberer ranks in the middle of the Pac-12 with a 43.2-yard average.

He’s dropped eight kicks inside opponents’ 20-yard lines, but has shanked a couple in recent weeks and kicked one right into a defender’s hands at Cal.

WSU’s specialists made their first costly mistake last week versus BYU when Haberer mishandled a PAT snap in the third quarter. The Cougars ended up failing on a 2-point attempt late in the fourth quarter and fell 21-19.

The return game has been a boon for the Cougars.

Harris has stutter-stepped his way into the top 25 nationally in kick and punt return averages at 24.4 and 10.3, respectively.

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