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Sports >  WSU football

Cougars test their two-minute offense during light practice: Notes and observations from Day 7 of Washington State fall camp

Aug. 10, 2022 Updated Thu., Aug. 11, 2022 at 11:19 a.m.

Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward (1) prepares to take a snap during a fall camp practice on Tuesday at Rogers Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward (1) prepares to take a snap during a fall camp practice on Tuesday at Rogers Field in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – 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 under coach Jake Dickert. Below are observations from the seventh day of fall camp in Pullman.

The notes

Two-minute drills were the highlight of Wednesday’s light practice on a muggy morning at Gesa Field.

WSU exercised for less than two hours in helmets, jerseys and shorts one day after conducting its first fully padded practice of fall camp. The Cougars focused on fundamentals and formations, and held abbreviated 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 periods before testing out their two-minute offense for the first time this preseason.

The Cougars’ first-team offense went three-and-out on its opening drive, which began about 20 yards short of midfield. Quarterback Cameron Ward was forced to throw one ball away, then had his third-down pass dropped by a check-down target.

True freshman QB Emmett Brown and the Cougars’ second-team offense took the field and churned out around 40 yards. Brown was decisive and timely in the quick game, and WSU’s running backs found space on option plays but lost steam near the red zone. A fourth-and-3 pass missed its mark with under 30 seconds on the clock.

It was Ward’s turn again, and the sophomore starter didn’t let his second series fizzle. He found outside receiver De’Zhaun Stribling twice on quick outs for 15 yards and later hit senior slot Renard Bell over the middle for 9 yards, setting up a third-and-1 with the end zone 30 yards away. The clock had ticked down to 10 seconds. The Cougars called a timeout and huddled around Dickert and offensive coordinator Eric Morris for a minute, then sent out a four-receiver set.

Ward took three relaxed steps on his dropback while never taking his eyes off Stribling, who was in a dead sprint toward the goal line with senior cornerback Derrick Langford Jr. at his hip. Ward didn’t hesitate, spinning a well-timed pass right off his three-step drop. The ball couldn’t have been placed much better.

In stride, Stribling held Langford off with his right arm and reeled in a touchdown grab with his left hand, wowing those in attendance and prompting a spirited celebration. WSU’s offense gained 60 yards on that six-play series, which spanned 1:56.

Morris had been pleased with his offense’s short passing game and run-pass options, but he wasn’t thrilled with WSU’s rate of success on deep passes through the first five practice sessions of fall camp. The Cougars made strides in that regard on Days 6 and 7, both of which featured several big plays from the team’s outside receivers.

“I didn’t think we were stretching the field very well early on in camp. The last two days, we’ve challenged the guys and we’ve seen great responses on hitting some vertical balls down the field,” Morris said. “Donovan Ollie and Strib have really gone up and competed and won some 50/50 balls.”

Ward completed 4 of 7 passes in the two-minute period after going 10 of 14 in 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 drills. He energized his sideline early in the day after connecting with Ollie, a sophomore starter at outside receiver, for a 40-yard completion down the right sideline during 7-on-7s. When the whistle blew, Ward looked over to his offensive teammates and fired them up with a few shouts and dramatic gestures.

“Cam’s our clear-cut No. 1, and he should be – he’s been around this offense for a long time,” Morris said of Ward, who starred over the past two seasons in the Air Raid offense at Incarnate Word. Morris, a first-year WSU coordinator, served as UIW’s head coach for the past four years. “He’s been really sharp these first six days.

“I think coach Dickert has done a great job of kinda bringing the evolution along of (Ward) being a leader all the time and being mentally focused. He’s always been super talented, but you saw it today – we were down a couple of times in team and he got everybody up, then he went out and we executed at an extremely high level. I love his leadership right now.”

True freshmen Brown and John Mateer and redshirt freshman Xavier Ward are locked in a tight race for the Cougars’ No. 2 QB position. The three have been splitting reps with WSU’s reserve teams and each has seen action in stretches with the Cougars’ first unit.

Morris expects to “start pushing the No. 2 reps to one guy” after the team’s first scrimmage Saturday.

“They have all had really bright spots and then some really low spots, so we’re looking for consistency,” Morris said. “That’s something we need for this team is to find out who our backup quarterback is.”

Running back Nakia Watson and left guard Brock Dieu did not participate in drills and observed from the sideline after both were banged up earlier this week. Paine, a redshirt freshman walk-on from Tumwater, Washington, was the Cougars’ first running back on the field. True freshmen RBs Djouvensky Schlenbaker and Jaylen Jenkins contributed with the first team and redshirt freshman Kannon Katzer played with the backups. Redshirt freshman Christian Hilborn held down LG. He and Dieu are competing for the starting job.

Morris noted that the Cougars “haven’t had any season-ending (injuries) right now.”

“I think this camp is a lot more physical than it was last year,” he added. “We’re doing more reps than what they did last year. We just have to get our bodies adjusted and we gotta be smart and protect the guys that have that game experience, who we know are going to be viable options for us on game day.”

With senior nickel Armani Marsh on a “pitch count” to limit his workload this preseason, sophomore Armauni Archie has taken the bulk of first-team snaps at that position. Archie had earned a significant playing role last preseason before sustaining a season-ending injury in Week 1. He was a limited participant at spring camp, but has returned to full health.

“It was demoralizing a little bit,” he said. “I had to tell myself every day that everything’s going to be OK. I was just working through it, rehabbing every day. It was a long process, but I got through it and I’m back now. I’m ready to go, man.

“It’s been really rewarding. Being out so long, I haven’t really played in a while, so I’m still trying to get my feel for the game. It’s been good to run with the (No.) 1s, going against guys like Renard.”

The Cougars worked on late-game clock management and simulated last-second field goals. All-Pac-12 kicker Dean Janikowski went 3 for 3, drilling a 47-yarder easily.

The Los Angeles Rams, New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars sent scouts to Wednesday’s practice.

Morris’ Air Raid roots run deep

Morris learned the ins and outs of the system as a standout inside receiver for Texas Tech in the mid-2000s under Mike Leach.

Every off-season, Morris sets a block of time aside for a lengthy phone call with his former coach.

“Any time you get on the phone with Leach, you need to schedule anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours,” Morris said, “because he’ll talk your ear off. He’s always been a great mentor of mine.”

Morris, the mind behind the Cougars’ new version of the Air Raid, exchanges notes with Leach – a pioneer of the Air Raid offense and WSU’s head coach from 2012-19.

“We watch his film and he watches our film,” said Morris, who coached the Cougs’ inside receivers under Leach in 2012.

Passing concepts are similar, but the Cougars’ contemporary Air Raid offense is more balanced than the system employed by Leach at WSU – Morris’ offense includes tight ends in some formations and dials up running plays around 40% of the time.

“We’ll run tight, bunch sets. We’ll run wide sets. We’ll run a bunch of ‘11’ personnel (one TE, one RB) and a bunch of ‘12’ personnel (two TEs, one RB),” Morris said.

“We have more offense than (Leach) overall, but it’s always good to pick each other’s brains, especially with a guy like that who’s had so much success and longevity.”

Three big plays

1. Stribling came up with a sensational touchdown reception for the second consecutive practice. WSU’s offense faced a third down from the 30-yard line with the clock down to 10 seconds during a two-minute drill late in practice. The Cougars went for the home-run ball. Ward tossed a pinpoint lob pass to his left and toward Stribling, who had gained a slight step of separation from Langford while racing downfield on a vertical route. Stribling held Langford off with his right hand and maintained stride, then stuck out his left arm and corralled a one-handed TD catch with only a step or two of space to spare on the sideline. The scoring play received a resounding ovation – perhaps the loudest moment of fall camp so far. Stribling punted the ball high into the air as the Cougars’ offensive sideline emptied and mobbed him in the end zone.

2. Tsion Nunnally, who is in the middle of a competition for a reserve role at outside receiver, earned kudos from teammates and coaches on the sideline after a skillful two-play stretch in full-team drills. The redshirt freshman had back-to-back, 20-yard receptions. The 6-foot-3 Nunnally showed off his range, elevating while twisting his body for a back-shoulder sideline catch from Ward. Nunnally then displayed speed and outstepped his defender on an intermediate crossing route.

3. Junior cornerback Chris Jackson stayed step for step with true freshman receiver Leyton Smithson, who was running a deep route down the left side of the field during the 11-on-11 section of practice. Backup QB Brown attempted to lift a 30-yard pass above Jackson, but underthrew it. As Smithson kept moving, Jackson calculated the ball’s trajectory and came to a full stop, then demonstrated his vertical leaping ability, bouncing off the ground for a high-point interception. Jackson is expected to be the Cougars’ No. 3 or 4 CB this season.

Their words

“I thought he was really honest with our guys, and it’s fun to watch them connect on a personal level and an emotional level through the course of a week. He offered a lot of great advice for our guys. But a guy who is the all-time leading Pac-12 passer, yards and touchdowns, has a bunch of knowledge in this offense. It was good to pick his brain in meetings. He definitely had some notes for me at the end of it. I think Luke Falk is going to be a great coach someday.” – WSU offensive coordinator Eric Morris on record-breaking former Cougars quarterback Falk, who attended the first five practices of fall camp.

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