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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State spring camp notebook: ‘Huge evaluation’ days ahead for several contested position groups

April 9, 2022 Updated Sun., April 10, 2022 at 3:25 p.m.

Washington State safety Adrian Shepherd defends against slot receiver Orion Peters during a fall practice Aug. 6 at Rogers Field in Pullman. Shepherd and Peters have stood out at spring camp this year and are vying for playing time in the 2022 season.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State safety Adrian Shepherd defends against slot receiver Orion Peters during a fall practice Aug. 6 at Rogers Field in Pullman. Shepherd and Peters have stood out at spring camp this year and are vying for playing time in the 2022 season. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Jake Dickert expects several position battles to last well into fall camp, but the first-year Washington State football coach hopes to clear up a few depth-chart questions before spring ball ends.

Next weekend’s scrimmage and the spring game April 23 will provide “huge evaluation” opportunities for tightly contested position groups.

Asked Saturday after practice about the Cougars’ intrasquad competitions for playing time, Dickert tabbed the free safety role as “one of the biggest jobs on defense that we’re looking to find.”

Throughout camp, freshman Adrian Shepherd has been the surprise front-runner. During his redshirt year in 2021, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Texas native appeared only once, in the fourth quarter of WSU’s blowout win over Arizona.

Shepherd made major strides in his understanding of coverage techniques and offensive formations over the off-season.

“I just put more effort and energy into the details, the small details and everything we do – everything matters,” Shepherd said. “Hard work pays off in everything you do. Just keep working at it. It’s a process and eventually you’ll see the results.”

His energetic style of play and willingness to learn caught Dickert’s attention.

“We took him for a reason in 2020 … he just has that football mentality,” Dickert said. “Every once in a while, you’ll see that aggressiveness get out of control. I’d rather pull him back than have to say ‘giddy-up.’

“He wants to go take your soul when he tackles, and there’s times where he’s gotta be finesse in the middle of the field and get people down. He’s a football kid. He’s tough, he’s hard-nosed and it’s in his blood.”

Shouldering the second-team reps at camp recently has been junior college transfer Sam Lockett III, a lengthy junior who began his college career at Utah State after graduating from Gonzaga Prep. The 6-1, 212-pounder played two seasons for the Aggies, then spent a year at City College of San Francisco.

Hunter Escorcia and Jaden Hicks, both deep reserves last season, are apparently also in the mix.

“(A priority) is finding that eraser at free safety,” Dickert said. “That’s going to be a job that I think goes all the way into fall camp.”

WSU lost veteran George Hicks III to graduation. Hicks performed consistently at free safety last season after playing cornerback for the first four years of his collegiate career. He took over early in 2021 for injured sophomore Halid Djibril, who has since transferred to Tarleton State.

WSU also had to rebuild at strong safety. The Cougars appear to have found their starter in experienced Nevada transfer Jordan Lee.

Lockdown cornerback Jaylen Watson is headed to the NFL, but WSU returns four key CBs in Derrick Langford Jr., Chau Smith-Wade – who participated Saturday after about a week sidelined due to injury – Kaleb Ford-Dement and Chris Jackson.

The personnel seems to be settled at the top of the depth chart. The responsibilities still need to be worked out.

“Those four guys were rotational, did a lot of things, but who’s going to step up and really solidify themselves as a big-time playmaker?” Dickert said of the cornerbacks.

On the defensive front, the first unit is already in place. A handful of players are jockeying for reserve roles.

No one will supplant Daiyan Henley at outside linebacker. The senior Nevada transfer has been a star throughout camp. His backup is to be determined.

Senior Ben Wilson and fourth-year sophomore Kyle Thornton are competing for minutes behind Henley. Wilson, a Lake Tapps, Washington, product, did most of his work on special teams last year after transferring in from TCU. Thornton saw steady action on defense behind five-year starter Jahad Woods.

“Both guys are vying for positions and we definitely want to rotate at linebacker,” Dickert said. “Who can spell and be ready?”

The Cougars are well-stocked on their D-line and boast experienced returning starters at the edge rushing and D-tackle positions. A couple of younger players and newcomers have a chance to crack the rotation.

Dickert singled out two D-tackles who’ll likely contribute in 2021: Virginia transfer Nusi Malani and sophomore Ty Garay-Harris, who played sparingly but alternated into the lineup in 10 games last year.

“(Malani) has added a pass-rush element that was desperately needed from the inside,” Dickert said.

Dickert plans to involve as many as seven edge rushers this season. The most effective four from WSU’s 2021 depth chart are back. Underclassmen such as Raam Stevenson Jr. and Lawrence Falatea are trying to prove themselves.

“Our edges position has really been our strength,” Dickert said.

On offense, the Cougars are pointing to the receiving corps as the strong point of their offense. WSU has high expectations for a first team composed of slotbacks Renard Bell and Lincoln Victor, and outside receivers De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie.

Otherwise, the Cougars are creating “competitive depth” this spring.

“Who’s going to separate at wide receiver? They know we’re going to play a lot of guys, but who can make the big, contested catches?” Dickert said.

Rising slots include Drake Owen, a journeyman collegian from Camas, Washington, and elusive redshirt freshman Orion Peters. With Victor sidelined because of a minor injury, Owen took first-string snaps Saturday. Outside receivers in contention for reps are sophomore Anderson Grover, junior CJ Moore and freshman Tsion Nunnally.

The running back and offensive line positions are in the early stages of the preseason development process.

Junior Nakia Watson is the favorite to start at running back for WSU, which intends to establish a ground game this season. Spring practices have featured a healthy dose of redshirt freshmen Dylan Paine and Kannon Katzer, and true freshman Djouvensky Schlenbaker. Sophomore Jouvensly Bazil is nearing full health after missing the first two weeks of spring ball.

“That’ll be a position we’ll be sorting out all the way to game day,” Dickert said.

The same can be said about WSU’s new-look O-line, which lost three mainstays after last season. The Cougars are shifting the pieces around up front.

“What five guys are gonna be able to take the reins?” Dickert said. “Next Saturday (a scrimmage) will be huge for that. We talked about the physicality. Who can execute?”

Tight ends take shape

Three players are emerging in WSU’s new position group: a true freshman, a D-I transfer and a converted linebacker.

Oklahoman recruit Andre Dollar is making a smooth transition from the prep ranks to the Power Five. The 6-4, 240-pounder lines up with WSU’s first-string offense in 7-on-7 drills.

“I like to be known for my receiving abilities,” he said, “but I also like to put my hand in the dirt. I’ll go down-block a D-end. I’m all for it.”

Billy Riviere, a 245-pound sophomore transfer, started for FCS North Dakota last season but didn’t register a reception. He’ll presumably be used most as a blocker.

Cooper Mathers, a third-year Cougar out of O’Dea High in Seattle, flipped to tight end this offseason. The Cougars converted a couple of other defenders in order to fill a position group that hasn’t existed at WSU in over a decade. First-year offensive coordinator Eric Morris’ new Air Raid offense reintroduced tight ends.

“All of us in the tight ends room, we have a chip on our shoulder,” Dollar said. “We’re trying to prove something that hasn’t been done.”

Mathers earned a “Juice Player of the Day” award from Dickert on Saturday.

“This guy’s been showing up a lot,” Dickert said. “He had a bunch of big plays the other day and was great in the red zone.”

Cougars conduct light session, situational possessions

WSU split up by position and worked through individual drills for the first half of Saturday’s half-padded practice before a brief 7-on-7 period and a no-contact team drill.

Quarterback Cameron Ward and WSU’s first-team offense were given just over a minute to march 60 yards and score a touchdown. WSU’s DBs blanketed the Cougars’ receivers and induced one or two touch sacks. Ward moved the chains with checkdowns to his running backs, and converted a fourth-and-3 before connecting with Ollie on the far sideline for a 25-yard pass that got the Cougars inside the 10-yard line.

With the clock hitting zeros, Ward’s pass to the corner of the end zone was altered by strong winds and intercepted by Langford.

On his second series, Ward had 40 seconds to march WSU into field-goal range. He showed command of the hurry-up offense and took the Cougars 40 yards, clocking the ball with 2 seconds remaining. Dean Janikowski’s 38-yard field goal sailed wide right.

True freshman Emmett Brown led the most successful drive, which he capped with a 35-yard touchdown toss to a wide-open Grover. Tight end Moon Ashby, a former edge rusher, caught a deep pass down the sideline from Xavier Ward to conclude practice.

The offensive and defensive lines walked through their progressions during the 11-on-11 period.

“We kinda designed it like … we were just going to be in helmets, but we’ll use it as a mental day, as a preparation day, as a day where we’re going to get something done with intent and have a lot of great teaching moments,” Dickert said.

Stribling, Watson and tackle Jarrett Kingston missed Thursday’s session but participated Saturday.

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