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Washington State coach Jake Dickert: Running the ball a ‘mentality and mindset that we’ll always have in this program’

Washington State Cougars running back Nakia Watson, left, runs through a tackle during a spring scrimmage on Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Don’t be fooled by the name of Washington State’s new offense. The Cougars’ Air Raid system won’t lack a ground game.

“We will run the ball. That’s something I’ve told the team multiple, multiple times,” coach Jake Dickert said after a spring camp practice last week. “That’s a mentality and a mindset that we’ll always have in this program.”

The brain behind the revamped Air Raid belongs to Eric Morris, who was hired by WSU in December to install and coordinate it.

He learned the offense’s principles from former Cougars boss Mike Leach, for whom Morris played and coached – he was a receiver at Texas Tech in the mid-2000s and assisted under Leach at WSU in 2012.

But Morris’ iteration of the Air Raid differs from the one employed by his mentor. The Cougars’ contemporary offense is more flexible, far less reliant on the pass.

“This is kind of a take-what-they-give-you offense,” Morris said Tuesday after a camp session at WSU’s indoor practice facility. “With the (run-pass option) game we run, it just kind of depends on the defense.

“If we’re seeing a lot of two-high (Cover 2 defense, meant to stop the pass), then absolutely, we’re going to hand it off a ton. If the defense is coming down and they’re adding an extra guy to the run game, then we’re going to take pride in throwing the ball over their heads.”

Morris honed the details in his version of the Air Raid while serving as head coach at FCS Incarnate Word over the past four seasons. About 40% of the Cardinals’ play calls in that span were runs. In 2021, UIW’s top two running backs averaged 118 yards on 19 carries per game and combined for 20 touchdowns. During the Leach era, the Cougars elected to throw the ball on around 70-75% of their snaps.

On Saturday, in WSU’s first spring scrimmage, the Cougars ran 60 passing plays and their tailbacks accumulated 150 yards on 22 rushing attempts.

“A little light in the running area,” Morris said when asked whether that pass/run balance was to his liking. “I thought we should have handed some balls off in the RPO game. I thought we called enough runs, but they ended up being passes because of the looks (the defense) gave us.

“But I thought we were good when we handed the ball off. … I’m excited about our production, but I gotta do a better job of getting the quarterback’s eyes in the right spot. That way, we can get these running backs the ball and going downhill.”

WSU’s running backs saw an uptick in usage last year after Dickert took over as acting coach in the wake of coach Nick Rolovich’s midseason dismissal. Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense typically leaned toward the pass at a 60/40 rate, but that number crept closer to 50/50 by the end of the season as Dickert sought to establish a physical identity. At spring camp, Dickert has introduced a grueling inside-run drill pitting a heavyset offensive front against a loaded defense box.

Last season, senior running backs Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh combined for 117.7 yards on 22.6 carries per game. With that duo out the door, junior Nakia Watson – the team’s third-stringer in 2021 – is expected to slide into a feature-back role.

“Nakia’s been the most consistent (running back) so far,” Morris said. “I definitely think he’s the leader of the group.”

After transferring in from Wisconsin, the 6-foot, 225-pound Watson impressed during fall camp ahead of last season but couldn’t crack a solidified, two-man rotation. He registered just 36 carries for 114 yards and didn’t find the end zone. Borghi led the team with 880 yards and 12 TDs on 160 rushes and McIntosh added 532 yards and three scores on 111 attempts.

Watson, a former four-star recruit from Austin, Texas, recorded 522 yards and five TDs on 127 carries across two seasons in a reserve role with the Badgers. He distinguished himself as a power back, but he’s been focused on becoming more dynamic, like his predecessors. Boosting his quickness and acceleration at the line of scrimmage were primary goals this offseason.

“Speed kills, especially in the Pac-12,” Watson said. “For a bigger back like me, I have to be able to create separation from the defender. Getting faster was definitely one of my main focuses during the offseason and even while we’re in spring ball, just working on those three steps and getting separation from the defender.”

He’s also adjusting to expanded leadership responsibilities in a running back room full of unfamiliar faces.

“Giving those guys someone to look at and running the ball whenever I can – that’s pretty much my role,” he said.

To run the ball effectively in 2022, the Cougars will probably need to find a capable backup or two to spell Watson.

True freshman Djouvensky Schlenbaker, out of Bellingham, is a high-potential newcomer. He ripped a 60-yard run in Saturday’s scrimmage. Two redshirt freshmen from Washington, Kannon Katzer and Dylan Paine, have taken on heavier workloads during spring camp as speedster sophomore Jouvensly Bazil recovers from an unspecified injury.

“Paine and Katzer have done a nice job. They continue to improve,” Morris said. “Obviously, our numbers are low at running back right now.”

Morris mentioned incoming freshman Jaylen Jenkins as a new player to watch in the fall. The 5-8 all-purpose back from Texas earned district MVP honors last season at national prep powerhouse Allen High after totaling over 1,500 rushing yards and 22 TDs.

“That’s a really explosive kid out in space, so we’re trying to find ways to get him involved, get him in space,” Morris said.

Using running backs in the passing game is a tendency the Cougars’ new Air Raid shares with Leach’s system. Rolovich’s run-and-shoot seldom included running backs in its aerial attack. Borghi and McIntosh totaled 264 yards on 30 receptions last year. For reference, Borghi amassed 597 yards on 86 catches in 2019, Leach’s final season in Pullman. WSU running backs caught eight passes in last weekend’s scrimmage.

“The biggest thing we’re doing now, as opposed to the run-and-shoot, is we get the ball out to running backs in the passing game,” Morris said. “First and foremost, we need those guys to be able to provide something and to be able to catch, and run after the catch. Then we need a big, strong guy who can step up and protect the quarterback on some blitz pick-ups.”

An offensive line that is replacing three mainstays – tackles Abe Lucas and Liam Ryan, and center Brian Greene – has performed better than Morris expected in pass protection, but the Air Raid’s running schemes have been a work in progress up front.

“They just haven’t done it very much, so it’ll be key that these guys continue to get better at pulling and being a little bit more physical at the point of attack,” Morris said.

The Cougars’ hope to enhance their push with the reintroduction of tight ends, a position group that hasn’t existed at WSU in a decade. Morris added tight ends to his UIW offense in 2020. The Cougars’ tight ends will split time lining up in the traditional “Y” spot, on the end of the line of scrimmage, and in the backfield as an H-back – a position comparable to fullback.

Several returning Cougars have been converted to tight end, including linebacker Cooper Mathers and edge rusher Moon Ashby. WSU signed a touted freshman from Oklahoma in Andre Dollar, who has been limited with an injury this spring. Former University of North Dakota starter Billy Riviere, a bruising sophomore at 6-4 and 245 pounds, has received praise from coaches and teammates