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Washington State spring camp notebook: Cougs developing dependable receiving options

Washington State slot receiver Lincoln Victor, left, runs upfield after catching a pass during a scrimmage on April 2 at Gesa Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Washington State’s football team is putting an emphasis on developing depth at its receiver positions this spring.

Because the Cougars are planning to involve quite a few pass-catchers in the fall – when they debut a new Air Raid system that will operate at a fast pace and could feature upward of 60 passing plays in a game.

“With more of an up-tempo offense, we’re going to rotate a lot of guys in,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said earlier in spring ball. “I want that group to be consistent.”

By all appearances, the Cougs’ receiving corps is shaping up to be one of the team’s deepest and most dependable units. Four established players are back, and a few unfamiliar faces have emerged during spring camp.

Coaches have identified redshirt freshman slot receiver Orion Peters as a candidate for substantial playing time. The fleet-footed Los Angeles native, at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, can cut and accelerate on a dime.

“It’s a big spring for Orion,” receivers coach Joel Filani said Thursday after morning drills at WSU’s indoor practice facility. “He’s getting real reps. He’s getting a chance to show what he can do. He’s capitalizing right now, so we’re impressed.”

Another slot earning praise has been junior Drake Owen, a Camas High grad who played two years at Division II Central Washington before transferring to WSU last spring. He impressed in fall camp but couldn’t crack a slotback rotation led by the standout senior duo of Travell Harris and Calvin Jackson Jr., both of whom graduated after combining for 1,801 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2021.

The Cougs were ready with replacements for Harris and Jackson.

Junior Lincoln Victor is primed for a breakout campaign after showing flashes of superstar potential in his first season as a Coug.

“Definitely some big shoes to fill, but my whole career I’ve been behind two seniors,” the Union High (West Camas, Washington) grad said last month. “Coming from the University of Hawaii, I was behind two seniors who went for 1,000 (yards). Here, again I was behind two seniors who went for 1,000. I kinda know what to expect. I know the standard is super high for me, but I just try to elevate the bar every single day to try to make those guys who came before me proud, and lead for the guys who follow me, as well.”

Renard Bell returns for his seventh season as a WSU slot after missing 2021 with an ACL injury. The 24-year-old Bell, who made his first collegiate start in 2017, has piled up 1,656 yards and 16 TDs in his Coug career.

“I always joke with Renard – he’s on a one-year hiatus,” Filani said. “He took a sabbatical. … First day, a little rusty. Second day, a little better. Now, he’s getting back in his rhythm. Explosive kid, explosive kid. He can bring a lot to the table, so we’re going to bring him back to the old form and even better, and he’ll be good to see on Saturdays.”

Bell often wears a no-contact yellow jersey at practices, but he’s been participating – and breaking off chunk plays – in team periods at practice. Victor, who took part in Thursday’s session, has missed some time with an unspecified injury. With the two top slots in and out of the lineup, Peters and Owen have taken on extra first-team reps.

“With those guys getting healthy, it’s been good to see the younger guys getting reps,” Filani said. “That’s how I think guys develop.

“When you rotate a lot of guys, a lot of guys get experience. Obviously, you need your horses to win when it’s time to go, but we’re going to try to play a lot of guys. The opportunities are there for guys to make plays, to get in the mix.”

Returning first-stringers at outside receiver, true sophomore De’Zhaun Stribling and fourth-year sophomore Donovan Ollie, totaled a combined 772 yards and four TDs on 70 catches last season as first-year starters in the run-and-shoot offense, which traditionally favors the slots. The two will be targeted far more frequently in the new system installed by offensive coordinator Eric Morris, who was hired by WSU in December after four seasons as head coach at Incarnate Word, an FCS program in San Antonio.

Last year, UIW’s top two outside receivers combined for over 100 receptions. Their backups added just over 40.

“This is a big-play offense,” Ollie said. “We’re all excited.”

It seems to be a three-man race for rotational roles behind the big-bodied tandem of Stribling and Ollie. Sophomore walk-on Anderson Grover’s name has come up a few times in post-practice news conferences. Tsion Nunnally, a 6-3 redshirt freshman, is “growing up right before our eyes,” Dickert said earlier this month. Former Oklahoma State receiver CJ Moore, a high-ranking juco recruit in WSU’s 2021 class, couldn’t catch on last season but has been a more reliable target this spring.

The Cougs, who haven’t signed a receiver in their 2022 recruiting class, are optimistic about their young pass-catchers, many of whom have never seen the field at the FBS level and are learning their second system in as many years.

“We gotta keep working and get tougher as a group,” Filani said. “We got a lot of young guys who don’t have much experience. That can’t be an excuse. We gotta show up and be able to play at a high level.”

Filani is well-qualified to speak on what it takes to excel as a receiver in this system. He earned two first-team All-Big 12 nods as a Texas Tech wideout under Air Raid guru Mike Leach in the mid-2000s. Filani served on Leach’s WSU staff in 2015 as a quality control assistant and returned to Pullman after spending the last three seasons as receivers coach at his alma mater.

“It’s a lot of stuff when it comes to the Air Raid,” he said. “You gotta be able to understand spacing, understand coverages and get YAC (yards after catch). … I think too often receivers try to play too soft, and that’s not the mindset we have when we play Air Raid. There’s a toughness it takes.”

WSU’s former Air Raid and its current system share passing principles, but Morris’ version employs tight ends and runs the ball more often than Leach’s offense, which fielded an extra receiver instead of a tight end and dialed up passing plays around 75% of the time.

In 2019, Leach’s final season as WSU coach, six Cougar receivers registered over 500 yards and 40 catches each.

It’s unlikely that WSU’s 2022 receiving corps matches that kind of widespread production, considering there’ll be fewer four-receiver sets and an added emphasis on the ground game. The Cougs are also cross-training some of their receivers at the inside and outside spots, Filani noted.

“We have guys who are interchangeable,” he said. “If we need to put Donovan at the slot, he can play slot. … We can get the best four guys out there, so we don’t feel handcuffed.”

It’s uncertain how many pass-catchers the Cougars intend to play significant roles in 2022, but an educated guess might be made based on UIW’s 2021 statistics. Four receivers totaled more than 45 catches and 600 yards apiece and another nearly topped 400 yards on 28 receptions. The Cardinals’ sixth-most targeted receiver logged 15 grabs on the year.