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2021 football preview: A redo for Washington State, which now boasts bolstered depth and run-and-shoot experience

A pandemic-racked 2020 season ended with Washington State 1-3, and feeling unfulfilled.

The Cougars didn’t have the proper time to install and adjust to their new coaching staff’s schematics, and their roster was often depleted by various injuries and COVID-19.

This year will function as a redo of sorts for WSU.

The Cougs’ well-stocked offense can finally field a true version of coach Nick Rolovich’s run-and-shoot.

And it’ll help that they return the majority of last year’s standouts.

Their bolstered depth at most every position was a talking point throughout fall camp.

Of course, besides the WSU coach’s reticence about the COVID-19 vaccine and the potential distractions that may come with that, a two-man quandary at quarterback is the Cougars’ most notable storyline this year.

Key pieces

Max Borghi, RB: Limited to one game in WSU’s shortened season by an injury, the Cougs’ exhilarating senior didn’t get a chance to fully showcase his next-level ball-carrying repertoire in Rolovich’s system, which uses running backs far more traditionally than former coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid.

Poised for a prolific bounceback season, Borghi has put the Pac-12 on notice and piqued healthy interest among pro scouts with his striking blend of acceleration, footwork and power.

Abraham Lucas, OT: Lucas would certainly have been selected in the spring’s NFL Draft, but Washington State’s towering anchor at right tackle felt he could boost his stock. He enters his senior campaign considered by many prognosticators to be an early-round draft pick in 2022, and arguably the top tackle in the Pac-12.

“He’s an incredible talent,” Rolovich said. “A lot of people that come will want to see him – just ’cause, you know, he’s different.”

Jahad Woods, LB: With 319 stops on his career, the mainstay weakside linebacker has a real shot at capping his time at WSU as a top-three tackler in program history (he’s No. 10 now).

No surprises here; Woods has played more minutes at WSU than anyone on this roster.

The Cougs’ stout defensive centerpiece started the past 40 games – across four seasons.

Jaylen Watson, CB: Watson can only recall surrendering one reception last year.

At 6-foot-3 and 204 pounds, the second-year Cougar is a lockdown, physical specimen at cornerback, and another clear-cut NFL prospect.

“I don’t feel like I have too many weaknesses, whether it’s size, speed, strength, IQ of the game – I think I’m an all-around player,” said the senior, who sports jersey No. 0 because “that’s how many passes I want caught on me each game.”

Filling in the blanks

Quarterback: Jayden de Laura won the job as a true frosh last year. In four starts, it was a mixed bag. His high ceiling was sometimes obscured by youthful mistakes.

Grad transfer Jarrett Guarantano arrived in the spring from Tennessee, where he started 32 games – it was a mixed bag for him, too. His arm strength and accuracy were occasionally overshadowed by decision-making problems.

Rolovich said the two have been locked in a dead heat for the nod.

Outside WR: Three unfamiliar faces – juco transfer C.J. Moore, rookie De’Zhaun Stribling and sophomore Donovan Ollie – will split the majority of reps at two spots. Ollie is the only one with playing time in crimson and gray. He was primarily a special-teamer last year and has one reception to his name at WSU.

The Cougs are optimistic about the trio nonetheless.

Moore provides a rangy target. Ollie found himself open consistently at camp. And Stribling, perhaps the must-watch player of the three, has the makings of a freshman phenom.

Safety/Secondary: George Hicks III, a WSU cornerback for the past four seasons, and Halid Djibril have been alternating at free safety.

Who’ll start is still up in the air.

On paper, WSU’s secondary is deeper than last year’s, having added several seasoned transfers while retaining the bulk of its starters.

Yet it’s still a position group that’s been marked by concerns in the recent past. The Cougar defensive backs were shredded by high-tempo opponents for over 300 passing yards per game last season.

Solving the puzzle

Keys to success this season include unraveling the QB dilemma, feeding Borghi, developing one or two more dependable pass-catching options and, defensively, fine-tuning the pass coverage – a primary problem area last year.

The Cougars go nine games before a bye, so that depth they’ve been touting should come in handy.

Although last season’s outcomes didn’t do much to signify an encouraging 2021, WSU seems to have a talented, tested and deep enough roster to rebound, and potentially contend for bowl eligibility. The Cougars should be favored in around half of their contests.