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 third day of fall camp in Pullman.
The Cougs added shoulder pads Friday on a pleasant morning at Rogers Field. “Get ready – we’re hitting today,” Dickert shouted as he made the rounds during individual pre-practice workouts.
WSU conducted inside-running drills, pitting a work-in-progress offensive line and a corps of inexperienced running backs against a proven defensive front. The Cougs’ O-line suffered a potentially significant setback about midway through the exercise.
Right tackle Ma’ake Fifita sustained what appeared to be either a foot or ankle injury when he found himself at the bottom of a pileup. The sophomore from Everett, a starting guard last year who shifted to tackle this spring, sat on the turf and spoke with trainers for about 5 minutes before being helped upright. Fifita put some weight on his foot for a moment, then sat on the back of a cart and was transported off the field. Jack Wilson, the 6-foot-11 former Idaho and Oregon State basketball player, replaced Fifita in the Cougs’ first unit.
Rodrick Tialavea, a sophomore who is competing for a backup role at guard, went down with an unspecified lower-body injury shorty after Fifita. Tialavea was also carted off the field. Dickert did not speak with the media after practice, so it’s uncertain how serious the injuries are.
Elusive Coug running backs Jouvensly Bazil and Jaylen Jenkins – a true freshman from prep powerhouse Allen High in Texas – juked through traffic and ripped big gainers early in the inside-run segment. But WSU’s stout defensive line didn’t give much ground as the drill progressed. “We love it in them trenches. We love putting the pads on. No more pattycake,” senior defensive tackle Antonio Pule III said.
Bazil and Jenkins are vying for backup reps at RB, along with Kannon Katzer and Dylan Paine. Jenkins saw some action with the second team on Friday and caught a few checkdown passes. After practice, he was named offensive player of the day. Dickert has pointed to Jenkins as a young player who might contribute this fall. “I think (Jenkins) just provides something different that we don’t have,” Dickert said. WSU’s top two running backs, Nakia Watson and Djouvensky Schlenbaker, are power backs. Jenkins is known for his speed.
Quarterback Cameron Ward had his most efficient practice of this young fall camp, completing approximately 22 of 27 passes with no interceptions in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 periods. The sophomore budding star only took a few shots downfield, but was exceptionally accurate on short and midrange throws.
Reserve QBs Emmett Brown, Xavier Ward and John Mateer looked sharp in team periods too as WSU’s high-tempo Air Raid passing attack functioned methodically and dissected the Cougar defense. WSU receivers outpaced defensive backs for much of practice.
Defensive coordinator Brian Ward expects “five or six” linebackers to play substantial reps this season. Senior Daiyan Henley is locked in as the starter on the outside. Redshirt freshman Francisco Mauigoa and junior Travion Brown are competing for the No. 1 job at middle linebacker. Redshirt sophomore middle LB Kyle Thornton and senior outside LB Ben Wilson have been in the mix, as well.
Ward said “it’s too early to tell” when asked if there has been any separation in the position battles at middle LB and free safety – redshirt freshman Adrian Shepherd and junior Sam Lockett III are splitting first-team reps.
North Dakota transfer Billy Riviere has taken the majority of first-team snaps at tight end, a position group that did not exist at WSU for the past decade but returned this offseason. Sophomore Cooper Mathers, a converted linebacker, seems to be the No. 2 option.
A scout from the Minnesota Vikings was in attendance, as were about 20 Coug fans, who gathered on the walkway overlooking Rogers Field to get a peek at practice.
Standout slotback Lincoln Victor wore a yellow no-contact jersey for the second consecutive day, but participated in every drill and made a handful of athletic receptions. Star edge-rusher Ron Stone Jr. and senior nickel Armani Marsh were present, but did not take part in exercises.
“Even though (Stone) is not out there, he’s still out here with the team,” Brian Ward said. “He’s still our team leader. He’s the vocal leader. When he gets the pads on, he’s also going to be a guy that’s really going to set the tone for us.”
Reserve edge Gabriel Lopez and backup guard Jernias Tafia were not suited up. Outside receiver CJ Moore is still out with a lower-body injury suffered Wednesday. Slot receiver Robert Ferrel remains sidelined with a toe injury.
Gomness takes command of reworked offensive line
Last season, Konner Gomness was a newcomer on WSU’s first-team offensive line. Now, he’s the captain in the Cougs’ new-look trenches.
Gomness started eight games at center as a redshirt freshman in 2021. He took over for injured senior Brian Greene in Week 1 and performed admirably throughout the first month of the season. But a hamstring injury knocked Gomness out of action for three contests in October. The Fresno, California, product returned to the starting lineup Nov. 13 at Oregon and never looked back.
“I got the opportunity to come back against Oregon and it was just – I had this opportunity again in my hands, and I can’t let it go,” Gomness said Friday. “That was the moment for me to really step up and not lose it, and to take the opportunity and capitalize on it.”
Gomness provides consistency for an O-line that has been anything but stable ahead of the 2022 season.
He isn’t the Cougs’ only returning starter up front. But Gomness is the only returning starter who is back in the same position he played in 2021. Fifita and Jarrett Kingston started at the guard positions last season, but this year will play right and left tackle, respectively.
That allowed WSU to shift Northern Colorado transfer Grant Stephens from tackle to guard. Stephens, a senior who earned All-Big Sky honors last season, is currently the Cougars’ first-string right guard.
“When he comes back and hits people, knocks them back, I really feel him,” Gomness said of Stephens. “He’s got that older mentality, so he’s on the same page as everybody.”
Freshmen Brock Dieu and Christian Hilborn are in a battle for the nod at left guard.
“We’ve gotta keep developing guys, especially on the inside,” Gomness said. “Anybody can go down at any time, so we gotta keep working and striving to fit them in that position.”
The Cougars’ O-line took a hit Friday, when Fifita and Tialavea suffered injuries within minutes of each other. Tialavea had been in the running for a reserve role at one of the guard spots. Fifita emerged a year ago as a dependable Pac-12 starter and had made a fluid transition to tackle in the spring. The Cougars are thin at the tackle positions – backups Wilson and Fa’alili Fa’amoe have no in-game experience as offensive linemen.
Gomness oversaw player-led training sessions with the new-look O-line group this summer.
“We’ve got guys who want to learn, so it’s easy when it’s like that,” Gomness said. “That’s what makes us get ahead in fall camp. Instead of trying to bring the new guys in and learn the plays, they already learned most of this stuff.”
Teammates and coaches have commended Gomness throughout the first three days of fall camp.
“Konner has done a phenomenal job with those guys,” edge Brennan Jackson said Wednesday. “He’s really grown into a leader role among them. He’s getting them ready.”
Added Dickert: “He’s building them together and creating accountability. I’m just really excited about what he’s been able to do as a leader.”
Three big plays
1. One of the Cougars’ fastest-rising players, Orion Peters sparkled in the spring and is shining at fall camp. The redshirt freshman slotback turned in an impressive effort Friday, recording perhaps the two most notable plays of the morning in the 11-on-11 segments of practice. He laid out for a fingertip reception on a 25-yard pass to the far sideline from backup QB Xavier Ward. Peters tapped his left toe inbounds and twisted his body to control the ball as he crashed hard to the ground out of bounds. Lining up with the Cougs’ first-team offense later in the day, Peters burst off the line and whizzed past his defender with a cut to the right, angling toward the back corner of the end zone. Cameron Ward delivered a well-placed pass over Peters’ shoulder, and Peters collected the ball in stride for a graceful 15-yard touchdown play. Someone on the sideline could be heard commenting on the play: “That’s how it should look.” It appears Peters is in line to be one of the Cougars’ top reserve receivers this season.
2. WSU’s Air Raid was at its best Friday in the short and intermediate game – when Ward flipped quick passes to receivers in space. The Cougar offense showed impeccable precision during full-team drills on a tunnel screen to receiver Zeriah Beason, who transferred to WSU in April after starting 13 games at Oregon State over the past two seasons. Ward took a one-step drop and zipped a pass to his right. In one smooth motion, Beason snatched the ball and turned upfield, gliding through a wide running lane and picking up 30 yards before a safety pushed him out of bounds. Beason, who can play in the slot and outside, should be a reliable reserve receiver this season.
3. Ward exhibited his arm strength in the 11-on-11 period, effortlessly launching a deep ball that traveled about 50 yards through the air before coming down in the back of the end zone. WSU’s secondary prevented a highlight-reel touchdown. Starting cornerback Chau Smith-Wade spotted the ball in flight and leapt vertically to gain positioning on 6-foot-3 receiver Donovan Ollie, the intended target. The 5-11 Smith-Wade stretched an arm above Ollie and batted the pass to the turf.
“The foundation has been set. There are new little wrinkles (in the Cougars’ defensive system) here and there. You’re really trying to make it all look the same, even though there may be a little bit of change. The little wrinkles we’ve brought, they were just wrinkles that were going to be introduced at some point anyways, just because our system and the way we coach it is pretty sound, and it’s been streamlined between what coach Dickert installed here (as defensive coordinator in 2020-21) and what I’m bringing coming in. Again, it’s about third-year development, continuing to move our guys forward. Ultimately, it’s not the calls that make you successful – it’s the ability to run the football and tackle.” – First-year defensive coordinator Brian Ward on the Cougs’ 2022 defense, which will closely resemble WSU’s 2021 unit in terms of schemes and philosophies.