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Sports >  WSU football

Cougar defensive front stands out, quarterback Cameron Ward shows leadership in face of pressure at Day 4 of WSU camp

Aug. 6, 2022 Updated Sat., Aug. 6, 2022 at 9:35 p.m.

Washington State’s Cameron Ward, center, laughs with his fellow QBs during a fall-camp practice Wednesday at Rogers Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State’s Cameron Ward, center, laughs with his fellow QBs during a fall-camp practice Wednesday at Rogers Field in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

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 fourth day of fall camp in Pullman.

The notes

WSU’s highly touted defensive line flexed its muscles Saturday, thwarting the Cougars offense during full-team periods of practice on a comfortable morning at Rogers Field.

Brennan Jackson, the exuberant junior edge who earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention nod last season, stole the spotlight with multiple sacks and quarterback pressures. By our count, Jackson tallied three “touch” sacks, using an array of pass-rushing moves to crack the pocket. He was “flat-out unblockable,” per Dickert.

Jackson is at full health for this fall camp after struggling with injuries in the past two preseasons. “He’s had such a great offseason,” Dickert said, awarding Jackson defensive player of the day honors. “I’m just ready for him to be a wrecking ball. He’s ready for his best football.”

WSU’s edge-rushing position – perhaps the single strongest facet of the team – is “right where we expected (it) to be” at this early stage of camp, Dickert noted. Behind Jackson and All-Pac-12 first-teamer Ron Stone Jr., the Cougs are well-stocked with edge-rushing talent. Sophomores Quinn Roff and Andrew Edson had some bright moments last season, and redshirt freshman Raam Stevenson is developing at a rapid pace. All three have taken reps with WSU’s first unit. “Our defense will go as they go,” Dickert said of the edges.

Sophomore Virginia transfer Nusi Malani has been “probably the strongest leader” of WSU’s five defensive tackles who are expected to play significant roles this season. Malani adds pass-rushing skill to a D-tackle room that returns plenty of experience but lacked a consistent push on passing downs in 2021. Senior Antonio Pule III has been “probably the most consistent” D-tackle at fall camp, Dickert added. The coach also highlighted senior Christian Mejia, who is a full participant this fall after missing spring camp with a wrist injury.

WSU’s Air Raid found some cracks in the short passing game, but the offense was often frustrated by pressure packages and forced to abandon plays before they could develop. Throughout the back half of practice, the Cougs’ top two secondaries played tight coverage while quarterbacks fled from their pockets.

WSU’s defensive front totaled at least six touch sacks on the day. Safety Sam Lockett III and linebacker Ben Wilson registered interceptions against true freshman QB John Mateer, and Utah State transfer cornerback Cam Lampkin picked off redshirt freshman Xavier Ward.

Starting QB Cameron Ward had to throw the ball away three times in one seven-play stretch. “(The defensive line) wrecked shop today,” Dickert observed, “but I also think it’s a learning time for our offensive line to grow and get better.”

Ward completed approximately 14 of 25 passes in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. He connected with Lincoln Victor deep downfield for an impressive touchdown early in the day. Otherwise, the defense mostly prevented the Air Raid from traveling too far on one play.

The Air Raid never really settled into a groove, but Ward kept his wits in the face of pressure. He was named offensive player of the day – not because of his on-field performance, but for his “leadership ability that we’ve really been working on since the offseason,” Dickert said. “The defense really held the upper hand (during one specific second-and-10 drill) and he had an opportunity … to instill some leadership, and I thought that’s exactly what he did. Proud of Cam. He’s growing in the right direction and the team had his full attention.”

Center Konner Gomness, arguably the Cougars’ best offensive lineman and one of the team’s most improved players, has lost only once in O-line/D-line one-on-ones. His streak was ended by Mejia on Saturday.

Senior receiver Renard Bell is the early favorite to be WSU’s primary return man this year. Sophomore Oregon State transfer receiver Zeriah Beason is another candidate.

A scout from the Denver Broncos attended practice.

New position group taking shape

First-year WSU offensive coordinator Eric Morris – a disciple of Air Raid guru and former Cougars coach Mike Leach – is introducing a reimagined version of that system this season. Morris’ Air Raid formations, unlike Leach’s, include tight ends.

Tight ends haven’t been employed at WSU in over a decade, so the Cougs had to build the position group from scratch this offseason. They landed a pair of transfers, signed a well-regarded prep recruit and converted a couple of defenders. Who among them will take the field next month, when the Cougs debut their new Air Raid and its tight end packages in front of an audience?

“That’s something, as we go throughout padded practices, that I really want to see,” Dickert said. “It’s one thing, as we go throughout camp, that we really need to solidify. And we are waiting for one of those guys, as we get more reps … to take over that top tight end position.”

Juco transfer Cameron Johnson “gives us some versatility.” The 6-4, 240-pounder from El Camino College (Los Angeles) is a more experienced pass-catcher than the Cougars’ other TE options. He took a fair amount of first-team reps Saturday.

Billy Riviere, a sophomore transfer from the University of North Dakota, “has been more of our ‘hammer’ guy,” Dickert said. The 6-4, 245-pound Riviere has seen more action with the first team than any of the other TEs. Known most for his blocking abilities, Riviere didn’t record a reception across 16 games over the past two seasons at UND. He has caught a handful of passes as a checkdown target at fall camp.

The Cougs’ Air Raid uses TEs sporadically and sometimes sends out two at a time. Riviere and Johnson shared the field for a few plays Saturday – on one of them, Johnson took off on a route and Riviere stayed behind to protect Ward.

Dickert needs to see true freshman Andre Dollar “take another step.” Dollar, a four-star recruit (ESPN) from Oklahoma, appears to be competing with converted linebacker Cooper Mathers for a reserve role.

Participation report

Dickert didn’t have an update on tackle Ma’ake Fifita and backup guard Rodrick Tialavea, both of whom spectated from the sidelines on Saturday after sustaining unspecified injuries the day before.

“We’re still kinda sorting through the process,” Dickert said. “When I have some information, I’ll kinda update you. But they’re out here right now, learning and getting better. We’ll kinda see where it goes from there.”

Dickert said he’s also unsure about the status of Raam Stevenson, a promising young edge-rusher who was rolled up on late in practice.

“I don’t know. It just happened today, kinda around a pile,” Dickert said. “We’ll see as the week goes.”

Three big plays

1. Three consecutive plays from WSU’s offense in the 11-on-11 segment were spoiled by Jackson, who put constant pressure on the Cougars’ QBs throughout full-team periods of practice. Jackson pushed past left tackle Jarrett Kingston and tapped Ward on the shoulder to record a touch sack. On the next snap, Jackson raced around the edge and forced Ward to scurry out of the pocket almost immediately after he took the snap. Ward completed a last-ditch shovel pass to Drake Owen for 3 yards. Jackson bullied his way into the backfield and logged another touch sack on the ensuing play. A swarm of Cougar defenders then surrounded Jackson in a celebratory mosh.

2. Ward and standout slotback Lincoln Victor dazzled on a rollout play and produced a highlight-reel touchdown. Ward drifted to his right and, while on the move, lobbed a deep throw down the seams. Ward’s off-balance pass was strikingly accurate. Victor stayed on his route, kept his stride and came up with a 40-yard touchdown.

3. Spokane native Sam Lockett III is in the mix for the Cougs’ starting job at free safety. The Gonzaga Prep grad, who played for City College of San Francisco last year after two seasons at Utah State, recorded another interception during team drills on Saturday, raising his total to two picks through four days of preseason practice. Lockett, lining up with a mix of first- and second-stringers in the 11-on-11 period, made a diving interception after an intermediate pass from Mateer ricocheted off its intended target, bouncing into Lockett’s zone in the middle of the field.

Their words

“The defense, I feel like we’re more feisty, you know. We all bring a swagger. Everybody’s got swagger on the field. After we make a play, everybody’s celebrating with each other. It’s like a brotherhood on the defense.” – Senior cornerback Derrick Langford Jr. on the Cougs’ defense, a veteran-laden unit that had an impressive showing Saturday.

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