PULLMAN – Washington State will hold 25 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 under coach Jake Dickert. Below are observations from the sixth day of fall camp in Pullman.
At the team’s prepractice breakfast, Dickert issued a challenge to WSU’s outside receivers: “I need some big-time plays,” he said. “I need a deep ball from each one of you.” Donovan Ollie promised to catch at least two downfield passes during Tuesday’s exercises at a cloudy and breezy Rogers Field.
“He delivered,” Dickert noted after the session.
Ollie came up with a few impressive grabs in one-on-one and full-team drills and was named Dickert’s offensive player of the day after WSU wrapped up its first practice in full pads. The Cougars’ other starting outside receiver, De’Zhaun Stribling, also responded to the coach’s request and produced the day’s most memorable play (see below). Both players caught touchdown passes in 11-on-11 periods.
Stribling and Ollie are returning starters who will be relied on greatly this season in the pass-heavy system.
“We need those big-boy receivers,” Dickert said. “There’s no way the ‘Coug Raid’ can function without big-time (receivers), especially red-zone threats on the outside.”
Stribling – the most productive freshman receiver in the Pac-12 last year – has boosted his top speed (without pads) from 19 miles per hour last year to nearly 23 this fall, according to Dickert.
“That’s a helluva development for a 19-year-old kid,” Dickert said. “He’s developing and maximizing his athletic ability. I think you’re going to see a different No. 88 on that field this year.”
Ollie, a fourth-year sophomore, “has really changed his body” over the past two seasons, Dickert said. “He’s changed his mental attitude and his capacity and I think he’s really growing. We need that on the outside. We’re going to use them more than we have in the past and I think that’s an exciting thing for both of those guys.”
WSU’s receivers appear to have an advantage over the defensive backs, but the Cougars’ secondary didn’t make it easy Tuesday. The DBs recorded two interceptions in full-team drills and consistently challenged receivers in one-on-ones – starting CBs Derrick Langford Jr. and Chau Smith-Wade were noticeably effective. Stribling versus Langford has become one of the most entertaining head-to-heads at fall camp.
“It gets so competitive and we’re making each other better in the process,” Stribling said.
Starting quarterback Cameron Ward completed approximately 14 of 21 passes in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 segments. He threw plenty of screens and sidearm quick outs, sprinkling in the occasional long pass. Ward tossed a well-placed 45-yard score to Stribling and later fit a 10-yard TD pass through traffic to Ollie. Freshman backups Emmett Brown, Xavier Ward and John Mateer alternated into the lineup for brief stretches.
Dickert put his whistle in his pocket, tossed his play cards to the side, flipped his ballcap around and took part in a couple of drills.
“I want to show these guys I still got it,” he said.
The 38-year-old former Wisconsin-Stevens Point wide receiver lined up as a defensive back and attempted to keep pace with the Cougars’ pass-catchers in one stretch of individual workouts. “(Outside receiver Tsion Nunnally) was knocking me on my tail,” Dickert said. “That was bad footwork. I gotta work on that.”
Later, Dickert exhibited proper tackling techniques and wrapped up a few foam dummies.
“I love being out here, period,” he said. “I love being with the guys. I can never just stand still. It’s one of those things. … I can’t just blow the whistle and walk around all day. I love being a part of it.”
Dickert acknowledged that starting duties this season at left guard will likely go to Brock Dieu or Christian Hilborn.
“I think those two are kinda locked in,” he said of the redshirt freshmen. “We’re going to need both of them. … Whoever wins that job is going to be out there first, but that doesn’t mean they will be out there all the time.”
Dieu was a full participant Tuesday after being held out of 11-on-11s a day earlier.
True freshmen Djouvensky Schlenbaker and Jaylen Jenkins shouldered extra first-team reps in place of junior running back Nakia Watson, who was pulled from the lineup about midway through practice after bruising through inside-running drills. He spent half of the morning walking around the sidelines in street clothes and conversing with teammates. Reserve RBs Kannon Katzer and Dylan Paine, both redshirt freshmen, rotated in and took reps beside primary playmakers.
The Cougars will conduct a “high-intensity, low-impact” practice session Wednesday morning at Gesa Field, designed to focus on formations and fundamentals
Scouts representing the Los Angeles Chargers and Indianapolis Colts attended practice.
Running back reps up for grabs
Asked about Schlenbaker’s potential as a backup running back, Dickert broadened the scope of the conversation.
“I don’t even know who No. 1 is, let alone No. 2,” he said of the RB depth chart. “I think those guys need to come out here and prove it.”
Dickert expects it to be a “by-committee” approach this season for the Cougars’ backfield. Watson is probably still the favorite to start, but the job won’t be all his. That’s “not a knock on Nakia,” Dickert said.
“That’s just a challenge to a lot of different guys that gotta be ready to play,” he said. “They all have uniquely different skill sets.”
Dickert mentioned five potential ball carriers: Watson, Schlenbaker, Jenkins, Katzer and Paine.
Watson, a balanced 223-pounder, has been the first RB to take the field with the Cougars’ first unit in every team drill since spring camp. The Wisconsin transfer has been the expected starter in 2022 since he took the reins from seniors Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh at last year’s Sun Bowl. Schlenbaker, from Bellingham, emerged quickly in spring camp as a powerful runner and has seemingly been solidified behind Watson this preseason. Jenkins, a Texas native, could add a speedier element to WSU’s backfield. Katzer and Paine are both sturdy redshirt freshman Washingtonians – Spokane and Tumwater, respectively – who check in at 5-9 and about 195 pounds. Apparently, they’re all in the mix.
“I don’t think there’s an established No. 1, 2 or 3 right now,” Dickert said of the RB depth chart.
Three big plays
1. Stribling took off on a deep route down the middle of the field during the full-team period. Langford, the Cougars’ top cornerback, kept stride with Stribling the entire way. The two jostled for positioning as Ward uncorked a 45-yard rainbow pass toward the center of the end zone. The throw arrived on time, but came down right in the middle of the interlocked Stribling and Langford, both of whom got their hands on the ball. Stribling tugged it away from the opposition as the two crashed to the turf. After securing the TD reception, Stribling popped up and chirped at Langford while a throng of Cougars sprinted upfield to celebrate one of the most outstanding plays of the preseason so far. “I’m going to keep bringing it up every time I see him,” Stribling said of the highlight.
2. Smith-Wade – the Cougars’ No. 2 man at the cornerback position – came up with a red-zone takeaway earlier in the day in team drills between WSU’s first units. Ward tried to squeeze a 10-yard pass into a tight window at the front-right corner of the end zone. Smith-Wade poked the ball up and away from receiver Zeriah Beason, then plucked it out of the air and shimmied ahead for a 10-yard interception return.
3. Javan Robinson, a promising true freshman cornerback from Florida, capped practice with a dazzling interception, which prevented a sideline TD catch. Playing against and alongside backups in 11-on-11 drills, Robinson appeared to fall a step behind receiver Anderson Grover, who was headed toward the back-left corner of the end zone. True frosh QB Emmett Brown tossed a 15-yard pass in Grover’s direction. Robinson surged late and dove, slipping in front of the intended target at the last moment. Robinson, named defensive player of the day by Dickert, has been singled out multiple times as one of the brightest rookies on the roster. He’s competing for a reserve role at CB.
“The mentality and the standard is to get takeaways every day. Right now, we’re reaching that goal, a set goal – we’re getting turnovers every day in practice. As long as we keep doing that, it will turn over into the season.” – WSU junior linebacker Travion Brown on the defense, which finished in a tie for fifth nationally last season with 29 turnovers gained..
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