Washington State will hold 25 fall-camp practices ahead of its season-opener Sept. 3 against Idaho. The Spokesman-Review will be in attendance for each of those, tracking relevant storylines, notes, depth-chart developments and key plays as the Cougars prepare for the 2022 football season – their first campaign under coach Jake Dickert. Below are observations from the first day of fall camp in Pullman.
The Jake Dickert era at WSU began in earnest when the Cougars strapped up for practice Wednesday, opening fall camp on a warm morning at Rogers Field.
WSU’s new-look staff put an emphasis on “details and fundamentals” during the helmets-only session, Dickert noted. The Cougars will add shoulder pads on Friday and begin full-contact workouts Tuesday.
About half of the two-hour practice was dedicated to individual drills, split up by position groups. Otherwise, the Cougs’ top units squared off in entertaining competitive periods – two 7-on-7 segments and two 11-on-11.
Hitting wasn’t permitted, but the energy was high as the Cougars’ new Air Raid offense tried to find cracks in a swarming defense that emerged last season as one of the best in the Pac-12.
Quarterback Cameron Ward, a highly regarded transfer and WSU’s sure-fire starter, completed approximately 18 of 24 passes. The burgeoning sophomore star looked sharp on short and intermediate throws. He zipped sidearm passes and rocketed balls with accuracy on sitdown routes outside and crossing routes over the middle. Ward didn’t linger in the pocket and made mostly safe decisions, but took a risk once and improvised on an across-the-body pass while scrambling to his left – despite the awkward release, Ward still connected with sophomore outside receiver De’Zhaun Stribling for a 10-yard gain.
When asked about WSU’s defense, Ward said: “It helps me a lot being able to compete against the top defense in the Pac-12. … There’s no off days against coach Dickert’s defense. They’re motivating me. We’re talking a little trash, but it’s all love at the end of the day.”
True freshman walk-on Emmett Brown took the bulk of second-team reps, completing approximately 13 of 22 passes. He threw three interceptions – all of them to freshman safety Jaden Hicks.
On the first-team offensive line, WSU trotted out redshirt freshman Brock Dieu at left guard. Grant Stephens, a senior transfer from Northern Colorado, has been flipped from tackle to right guard. Ma’ake Fifita and Jarrett Kingston – WSU’s two starting guards last season – are starting at right and left tackle, respectively.
First-team reps at running back went to junior Nakia Watson. Bruising freshman Djouvensky Schlenbaker and Spokane native Kannon Katzer shouldered the second-team duties.
Dickert named Stribling offensive player of the day after the Hawaii native came down with a few contested catches. “He refused to let the ball touch the ground,” Dickert said of second-year starter. The defensive award went to Hicks.
WSU rotated five defensive tackles in with its first team. The Cougars have a position battle going at middle linebacker between redshirt freshman Francisco Mauigoa and junior Travion Brown. Mauigoa started with the 1s on Wednesday. Redshirt freshman Adrian Shepherd and juco transfer Sam Lockett III are competing for the job at free safety. It appears Shepherd has the lead on Day 1.
Record-breaking former WSU quarterback Luke Falk attended practice and chatted with the Cougs’ new QB. “It was good to be able to learn some things from the all-time passing leader in the Pac-12,” Ward said.
For the most part, the Cougars entered fall camp with a healthy roster. But some injury-related news popped up on Day 1.
Cornerback Kaleb Ford-Dement was notably absent from practice, and Dickert confirmed to media members after the session that the fifth-year senior will miss the 2022 season due to a shoulder injury. It’s a significant blow for the Cougar secondary, which now must find a fourth option at CB to take over for Ford-Dement. A second-year Cougar who transferred to WSU last summer out of Old Dominion, Ford-Dement was expected to be one of WSU’s top four most reliable CBs this year.
“(Ford-Dement) had an injury through his shoulder really throughout the summer and we felt it was best for him to have surgery on his labrum,” Dickert said.
Reserve outside receiver CJ Moore took an awkward fall during the team portion of practice and was helped off the field. The severity of his lower-body injury is uncertain.
Senior slot receiver Robert Ferrel watched practice from the sideline with a boot on his right foot. The Incarnate Word transfer sprained his toe recently, Dickert said, adding that he expects Ferrel “to be out here pretty soon.”
Starting slotback Lincoln Victor participated in individual drills and took a handful of reps in the day’s first seven-on-seven period, but was held out throughout the second half of practice and spent most of his day exercising lightly on the sideline. Victor was in and out of the lineup during spring camp due to an unspecified minor injury. Star edge-rusher Ron Stone Jr. also was a limited participant Wednesday. He exited the lineup early and worked on his cardio from the sideline for the remainder of the morning. But don’t be alarmed – Dickert said Tuesday that some of the Cougars’ more experienced players will be on “pitch counts” to limit their workloads and preserve their health.
True freshman offensive lineman Kendall Williams was absent. Dickert said Williams “ended up having some stuff in his (preseason) physical that we didn’t now about, and we’ll get him out here as soon as we can.” True freshman linebacker Darnell Stephens was present, but did not practice.
Ward and Brown found a consistently reliable option in slotback Renard Bell, the seventh-year senior who missed the 2021 season with an ACL injury.
Returning to form, Bell registered 11 receptions from the two QBs during team periods. He made sharp cuts and raced past defensive backs, snagging catches on crossing routes and turning upfield for chunk yardage.
Brown fit a pass to Bell between two defenders for a 30-yard TD in 7-on-7. Bell let out a howl and gave cornerback Cam Lampkin an earful.
“I just think it’s amazing for a guy that’s here in his seventh year – when you have purpose and intent, you can get to where you want to go,” Dickert said of Bell, who has accumulated 1,656 yards and 16 TDs in a Cougar uniform. “I think it’s because Renard sees the finish line. When you have a year taken away, for him to come all the way back and put the effort in that he did this summer, it’s really, really impressive.”
Three big plays
1. From a clean pocket, Ward fired a high-arching pass deep down the right-side seams toward slot receiver Orion Peters. The fast-rising redshirt freshman left his coverage in the dust, then laid out and made a spectacular 40-yard reception, snagging the ball with his fingertips just before crashing to the turf – the highlight of the Cougars’ 7-on-7 period and probably the single best rep of the morning.
2. Donovan Ollie made a strong case for play of the day later during the full-team segment of practice. The 6-3 redshirt sophomore used his long strides to gain separation from his defender along the far sideline. A deep ball from Ward came down just within Ollie’s reach. The starting outside receiver extended his right arm and hauled in a one-handed catch for about 30 yards before being shoved out of bounds.
3. Backup strong safety Hicks played a starring role for the Cougars’ veteran-laden defense, tallying three interceptions – all of them coming against Brown – during the 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 periods. Hicks’ second pick of the day was his most impressive. Playing shallow coverage in the middle of the field during a full-team exercise, Hicks positioned himself close to the line of scrimmage to cut off crossing routes, then read Brown’s eyes and bounced quickly off the ground to record the takeaway. “Every time I looked over and heard a cheer, there’s Jaden Hicks going the other way with the football,” Dickert said. “We’re expecting big things from Jaden.” The freshman is vying for playing time this year after redshirting in 2021.
“He just brings passion to both sides of the ball. In the beginning, he was a defensive coordinator, so obviously all of his time was spent with us. But now he gets to connect with the offensive players and really put his feel for the game onto them. I think they see his passion. This guy cries almost every meeting when he’s talking to us. He’s passionate about the game. He really loves us as players. You can just see the whole team intertwined better. It’s not a ‘Cougs versus Cougs’ deal. Everyone’s trying to get better every day. He commands the ship.” – Edge rusher Brennan Jackson on Dickert, the former WSU defensive coordinator who was hired in November as head coach after leading WSU on an interim basis throughout the back half of last season.
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