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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State spring camp takeaways: Shining a light on the Cougars’ new Air Raid

UPDATED: Tue., April 26, 2022

Cougar quarterback Cameron Ward makes a quick throw to the flat during Washington State’s spring game on Saturday. “The team is starting to look my way,” he said.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Cougar quarterback Cameron Ward makes a quick throw to the flat during Washington State’s spring game on Saturday. “The team is starting to look my way,” he said. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – The first Washington State spring camp of the Jake Dickert era has concluded.

So, let the offseason discourse commence.

First, we’ll shine a light on WSU’s new offense, which began its installation process this spring under a first-year staff.

Cameron Ward takes center stage

At last, the Cougs are entering a season with a clear-cut starter at the quarterback position.

Since he signed with the program in early January, Ward has been the center of attention at WSU, which will debut a “QB-driven” Coug Raid offense in 2022.

Cougar coaches and fans are expecting much out of the sophomore Texas native, who transferred to WSU after operating the same system for two superstar seasons at FCS Incarnate Word under coach Eric Morris – now the Cougars’ first-year offensive coordinator.

In recent memory, QB competitions have been the norm during fall camps in Pullman. But Ward has taken firm hold of the reins this spring.

“Really, he just knows the offense, he knows where the ball needs to go and where we need to be,” outside receiver Donovan Ollie said earlier this month. “He’s just being that leader and he’s putting the ball exactly where it needs to be.”

The 6-foot-2, 223-pound Ward built rapport quickly with his teammates and impressed onlookers throughout camp with his poised command of this offense and exemplary skill set – for Ward, no pass seems too difficult to make.

“He’s been amazing,” senior nickel Armani Marsh said last week. “Cam is a very, very good player, one of the best quarterbacks I’ve competed against.

“He’s a competitor. He’s always going to compete with you, and he’s just very good and mature.”

Ward demonstrated his arm talent and leadership qualities with a sharp showing Saturday in the Cougs’ spring game.

His short and intermediate throws arrived punctually. He maneuvered in the backfield and zipped an array of passes around the field, showing off his precision and power with the occasional deep shot while efficiently steering an up-tempo Coug Raid attack that requires its signal-caller to function as a coach on the field and make adjustments on the fly.

“We put a ton on the QBs,” Morris said after a recent practice. “We want to make it hard for them and easier for everyone else. They gotta check a lot of stuff at the line of scrimmage and get people lined up.”

This summer, Ward will be focused on fine-tuning his pocket presence because “I have a tendency to over-stride in the quick game,” he said Thursday.

“I feel like I’ve improved a lot being with coach Dickert,” Ward added. “He told me I need to work on being more vocal. I’m starting to get that aspect. The team is starting to look my way.”

WSU sorting out depth chart elsewhere

The Cougars’ primary concern this offseason: Who can they count on to protect Ward?

Question marks still surround a rebuilding offensive line that lost two mainstay tackles and a veteran center to graduation.

Junior Jarrett Kingston, an experienced guard, shifted to a new position before spring ball and is a lock to start at left tackle. Sophomore Konner Gomness earned steady praise at camp for his consistency at center. Sophomore Ma’ake Fifita, the first-stringer at right guard for over half of the 2021 campaign, is cross-training at guard and tackle. He’ll probably stay inside, considering WSU recently signed a senior transfer in Grant Stephens, who earned an All-Big Sky nod last season for his work as Northern Colorado’s right tackle.

“The first thing that stands out with Grant is some maturity,” Dickert said. “He can bring something to a young O-line group and he has a lot of starts. I think he’s going to make a big impact on our program.”

Freshmen Christian Hilborn and Rodrick Tialavea held down the first-team guard spots at camp. Both are unproven, so it’s certainly possible that WSU shops the transfer portal to augment the interior of its trenches.

Minor injuries throughout spring put the group even further behind the eight ball and contributed to some particularly one-sided team sessions in which WSU’s deep and talented defensive front dominated.

Only nine offensive linemen were available for Saturday’s Crimson and Gray game.

WSU is well-stocked at the receiver positions, and the Cougs are confident with their top four pass-catchers in Lincoln Victor, Renard Bell, De’Zhaun Stribling and Ollie.

Speedsters Victor and Bell, replacing the prolific slotback tandem of Travell Harris and Calvin Jackson Jr., are widely expected to shine. Stribling and Ollie are lengthy returning starters on the outsides.

Behind them, WSU is searching for “competitive depth,” Dickert said. Five or six players will be vying for rotational roles at fall camp.

“We’re fighting for consistency at receiver,” Dickert said Saturday.

At running back, the Cougars appear to have found their go-to option in junior Nakia Watson, a balanced ball-carrier who occupied the No. 3 spot on last year’s depth chart behind seniors Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh.

Four RBs will presumably be competing for reserve reps in the fall. By all appearances, sturdy freshman Djouvensky Schlenbaker, out of Bellingham, is the current favorite to back up Watson.

Morris’ Air Raid reintroduced tight ends, a position group that hadn’t been used at WSU in over a decade.

“It’s an evolving position,” Morris said. “It’s a position we have to grow over time.”

The Cougs signed a high-potential prep recruit at TE in Oklahoma native Andre Dollar. When healthy, he took the bulk of first-team reps this spring. WSU also added a block-first transfer out of the University of North Dakota in sophomore Billy Riviere. Cooper Mathers flipped from linebacker to TE in the offseason and had a solid camp. Dickert indicated last week that the Cougars are looking for more TE recruits and it’ll take time before a depth chart begins to take shape.

“We’re developing the position,” he said. “We’re not going to panic. We’re going to make sure we bring in the right guys.”

Examining the ‘Coug Raid’

WSU employed an exceptionally pass-happy Air Raid from 2012-19 under coach Mike Leach. The Cougars’ contemporary version of the offense “takes what (the defense) gives you,” Morris said.

Yes, WSU will lean on the passing game and often send in four receivers at a time – occasionally five. Ward will probably throw at least 40 passes per game and as many as 60. But the new Coug Raid prides itself on flexibility and features a seemingly endless array of formations.

Dickert said the offense will resemble Incarnate Word’s from the past two seasons under Morris.

“It’ll be similar,” Dickert said. “We’re kinda putting our own stamp on it. One of the biggest things I’m confident about in (Morris) is he can adapt. It isn’t just the system of offense, it’s who do we have? Who are our playmakers and how are we going to get them the ball? He does an amazing job of that.”

If the Cougars are finding success in the ground game, for instance, they’ll stick with it. UIW’s top two running backs averaged over 20 carries per game last season.

The Cougars are capable of power-running out of heavy sets, which sometimes include two tight ends. They make good use of run-pass options, giving Ward the freedom to hand the ball off out of spread formations if he sees a weakness in the defense.

UIW went to the ground 30 or more times in half of its games last year.

Ward averaged 45 passes per contest and spread the wealth.

“Explosive,” Marsh said, summing up WSU’s Coug Raid. “They throw a lot of different stuff at you to keep the defense on their toes. You gotta be able to stop the run, vertical pass concepts, screens – really anything.”

WSU’s aerial attack was particularly crisp this spring on quick outs and rapidly fired intermediate passes. Running backs and tight ends provided checkdowns. The main objective is to “get the ball out in space to our playmakers and let the work do itself,” Victor noted Saturday.

With the addition of TEs and an added emphasis on running the ball, WSU will likely play fewer receivers than it did under Leach, but the Cougars still need six or seven targets to be able to alternate reliably.

“You saw the tempo style of picking and choosing when we want to go fast, and those (receivers) always have to be ready to come in the game,” Dickert said.

Last season, WSU’s run-and-shoot offense huddled up before most snaps. That won’t be the case in 2022.

“The tempo is faster and I really like that, because we get the defense on their heels and boom, hit them with a screen,” reserve slot Drake Owen said.

Asked to compare UIW’s system with WSU’s, Ward said the Cougars have added “a wrinkle in the run game” and “maybe a couple of passing concepts,” and offensive line coach Clay McGuire has made some changes to protection schemes.

“But other than that, it’s the same stuff I ran at UIW,” he said.

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