Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now

Cougar passing game clicks, then cracks from defensive line pressure: Notes and observations from Day 5 of WSU camp

Washington State slot receiver Lincoln Victor (85) eludes a tackler during WSU's Crimson and Gray spring game on April 23 at Gesa Field in Pullman. Victor, now wearing jersey No. 5, will be one of the top receiving targets this season in the Cougars' new Air Raid offense.  (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 fifth day of fall camp in Pullman.

The notes

WSU’s quarterbacks and pass-catchers found a groove in the 7-on-7 periods of Monday’s session on a warm, windless morning at Rogers Field. But the Cougars’ Air Raid wasn’t nearly as effective when the offensive and defensive lines were added to the mix for 11-on-11 drills.

Four Cougar QBs combined to complete approximately 23 of 43 passes in the full-team period. Those same signalcallers went an estimated 21 of 27 during 7-on-7 segments of practice. The Cougars’ QBs looked sharp and their receivers got the best of WSU’s defensive backs – that is, when passing plays were given time to develop.

WSU’s defensive line, arguably the team’s strongest and most stable position group, put together another disruptive showing and generated enough push to limit the Cougars’ offensive capabilities. Junior edge Brennan Jackson made a noticeable impact and lived in the backfield for the second consecutive practice, tallying at least two touch sacks against WSU’s top offensive line – an unproven position group that is decidedly less stable than the D-line. Jackson added a pass break-up at the line of scrimmage. Sophomore edge-rushers Quinn Roff and Andrew Edson and senior defensive tackle Christian Mejia broke through for a sack apiece.

WSU focused primarily on third-down situations Monday throughout team periods. Asked about the defense’s performance, Dickert attributed at least some of the stops to creative pressure schemes the Cougars tend to save for third downs. “I know this: Our defensive package is a lot, especially on third down,” he said. “When you see some of that stuff in 7-on-7, you get a little more time than you do in team. … It takes the offense just a little bit to get comfortable.”

As should be expected, the offense operated at its most efficient rate when it was piloted by starting QB Cameron Ward, the sophomore transfer with intriguing potential. Ward passed approximately 16 of 24 in the two offense/defense periods. One of his better moments of the day came on a designed rollout pass in 11-on-11 drills. Ward slid right with five or six unhurried steps and didn’t appear to exert himself when he flicked a 20-yard strike, precisely on target, to senior Renard Bell for a sideline completion.

Slot receivers Bell, Lincoln Victor and Orion Peters came up with a few big gains in 7-on-7s. In 11-on-11 workouts, they were looked to often in the short-passing game – as were the Cougars running backs. Junior starter Nakia Watson, known for his power-running style, broke off a chunk play on a check-down reception.

The Cougars will provide a more authentic preview of their ground game beginning Tuesday morning, when they conduct their first fully padded practice of camp.

Dickert is looking forward to WSU’s first scrimmage, scheduled for Saturday morning. The mock game “will be a big measuring stick” in determining the Cougars’ frontrunner at free safety. Redshirt freshman Adrian Shepherd has been starting out with the 1s, and Sam Lockett III has rotated in. “I think they’ll both end up playing this season,” said hard-hitting senior Nevada transfer Jordan Lee, who is stationed firmly atop the depth chart at strong safety. Redshirt freshman Jaden Hicks appears to have an early lead for the backup spot. “Those four guys will really be contributing,” Dickert said.

North Dakota transfer sophomore Billy Riviere has “really established himself I think as the leading guy at the tight end position,” Dickert said, naming Riviere offensive player of the day. “I love his toughness.”

Scouts representing the Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts attended practice.

Air Raid receiving corps ‘eight deep’

The Cougars “want to be eight deep” at the wide receiver positions by the time the season arrives.

“We want to be able to roll those guys in with a lot more tempo in the offense,” Dickert said.

The four starters are set in WSU’s base offense – Bell and Victor on the insides, and De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie outside.

Dickert plans to use an additional two slotbacks and two outside receivers as reserves this season. The first slot receiver off the bench? It’s an easy answer.

“The biggest one is Orion Peters,” Dickert said. “It’s hard to even call him a backup at this point. He’s really established himself as a guy that we’re really going to count on.”

A redshirt freshman from Inglewood, California, Peters impressed during spring ball and continues to make a strong impression at fall camp. He exhibits soft hands, speed and phenomenal coordination.

“He has a lot of the intangibles of being the next great receiver,” Victor said. “He’s taken every single step the right way, leading up to where he’s gonna be in a position to get a lot of playing time this year.”

The other backup slot spot will presumably go to Robert Ferrel, a senior and former All-Southland Conference pick at Incarnate Word, where he played alongside Ward for the past two seasons in the same offensive system.

“When we get Robby Ferrel back (from a toe sprain), he knows this offense and he’ll immediately be inserted as a guy that can come in and take some reps and function at a high level,” Dickert said.

The third and fourth outside receivers so far seem to be Oregon State transfer Zeriah Beason and 6-3 redshirt freshman Tsion Nunnally, respectively. Dickert told reporters to “not count out” true freshman Leyton Smithson, from Bellingham, Washington, “as a guy who might be rotating in and doing some things.”

Dickert has challenged his taller outside receivers – Stribling, Ollie and Nunnally – to boost their production in the downfield passing game.

“I want to see those three big-boy receivers come to play on the edge,” he said. “That’s a daily process and we’re still waiting to see those guys win on some balls down the field.”

Participation report

Dickert provided an encouraging update on starting right tackle Ma’ake Fifita and backup edge Raam Stevenson, both of whom sustained injuries late last week and watched Monday’s practice from the sidelines.

“We feel comfortable that Ma’ake – a lower-leg injury – will be back for the first game,” Dickert said. “Hopefully, we’ll get him out of a (walking) boot here next week and get him rolling back through some light stuff as we work toward the first game.

“Raam, we feel pretty confident that he’s kinda in the same boat. On some of the other guys, we’re still wading through some stuff.”

Fifita, a starter at guard last season, shifted to tackle during spring camp and has solidified himself as one of the most dependable players on WSU’s work-in-progress offensive line. Stevenson, a fast-developing redshirt freshman, had been one of the Cougars’ brightest young defenders through four days of camp. He’s making a compelling case to receive significant playing time this season.

Redshirt freshman guard Brock Dieu participated in individual drills, but was held out of full-team periods. Redshirt frosh Christian Hilborn shouldered starting duties with the first unit at left guard. The two are competing for the job at LG. Reserve guard Rodrick Tialavea spectated from the sidelines three days after suffering an unspecified injury.

Reserve outside receiver CJ Moore is still sidelined due to an injury sustained on Day 1 of camp. Ferrel remains out with a toe injury, but Dickert expects the senior Incarnate Word transfer to return to the lineup in the near future.

Three big plays

1. Running back Jaylen Jenkins, a lightning-quick true freshman from Texas, has supplied an explosive element to WSU’s ground game throughout fall camp. Jenkins made another flashy play Monday during the 11-on-11 period of practice. The 5-foot-8, 177-pounder burst through a narrow gap between the tackles and whizzed downfield at a rapid pace, blowing past every defender – no one got a hand on Jenkins – for a 50-yard touchdown.

2. Junior middle linebacker Travion Brown, lining up with WSU’s No. 2 defensive unit in 11-on-11 drills, drifted back into shallow coverage while reading the eyes of freshman quarterback John Mateer, who tried to lift a hard-thrown pass above Brown’s reach, but misfired low. Brown made a slight hop and snared an interception, then showed impressive acceleration and went untouched as he hauled the pick 20 yards back, into the end zone. Brown, named defensive player of the day by Dickert, is in a tightly contested position battle with redshirt freshman Francisco Mauigoa.

3. Reserve slot receiver Drake Owen made perhaps his best catch of camp in 7-on-7s. The junior from Camas, Washington, cut hard to his right on an intermediate out route, gaining a small step of separation on his defender. Mateer floated a touch pass toward the right sideline, over Owen’s shoulder. The ball was almost out of reach and out of bounds, but Owen bent down and plucked it off the turf with his fingertips while dragging his left foot inbounds for a 15-yard gain. Teammates and coaches surrounded Owen to offer props.

Their words

“Cam loves it. He’s born for it. I really believe that, when you get around him a lot and you really get a chance to sit down and talk to him, he lives for the moment. All the little details we’ve been talking about – how he carries himself, how he understands that his voice matters in everything he does. … How you run off the field matters, especially when you’re a leader and you have that many eyeballs on you. I’ve been happy with his development. He doesn’t make excuses. He takes a lot of ownership. He expects to play at a high level and holds himself to that every day.” – Dickert on Ward’s composure and how the sophomore transfer QB has handled the pressure that comes with his position.