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 eighth day of fall camp in Pullman.
Quarterback Cameron Ward dropped pinpoint passes into tight windows and the Cougars’ Air Raid receiving corps flashed superstar potential during an entertaining practice Thursday morning at Rogers Field.
WSU’s receivers sparkled for the third consecutive day. Slot receiver Lincoln Victor kicked off the session with a spectacular, one-handed touchdown reception and outside receiver Donovan Ollie added a pair of tough catches on deep routes (see ‘big plays’ section below).
Ward, the Cougars’ highly regarded sophomore transfer QB, and his receivers seem to have developed their timing. Most of Ward’s throws were notably precise and caught in stride. He went 17 of 25 in 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 periods and shined in a red-zone drill near the end of practice, delivering several accurate over-the-shoulder touchdown passes to the corners of the end zone. Ollie, Victor and sophomore standout De’Zhaun Stribling registered toe-tap TDs.
“I thought the offense came out today and really swung and threw a punch and cut it loose,” Dickert said, adding of the budding chemistry between Ward and the receivers: “That’s probably why they were so sharp today. … I think (Ward) is getting more comfortable. Those guys are in sync and he’s trusting them.
“I think there’s a confidence brewing on the offense and it’s really good to see.”
True freshman QB Emmett Brown got most of the work with WSU’s second offense. He went 13 of 21 in team drills, avoiding pressure with check-down tosses.
Tight end Billy Riviere has made for a reliable receiving option in WSU’s quick passing game. The sophomore North Dakota transfer snagged a goal-line TD pass from freshman QB John Mateer in 7-on-7 red-zone drills. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Riviere, who was used exclusively as a blocker at UND, has emerged as the leader of WSU’s new position group – the Cougars hadn’t employed TEs in their offense for about a decade but reinstituted the position this off-season when offensive coordinator Eric Morris introduced his Air Raid system.
“It’s awesome. We get to kinda set the culture for the room and set the precedent for what’s coming in the future for the tight ends here,” Riviere said Thursday during his first meeting with WSU media members since arriving here in the spring.
Dickert, asked to name team MVPs through one week of practices, singled out Ollie. A returning starter who totaled 301 receiving yards as a redshirt freshman last season, Ollie has produced a handful of highlight-reel catches on downfield routes over the past couple of days.
“Donovan has really taken his game to the next level on those deep balls and explosive plays,” Dickert said. “He’s cutting it loose, and we need it. In this offense, you gotta have big-boy receivers, and I think he’s really risen to the occasion.”
The Cougars’ brightest defensive player so far this preseason is simple, Dickert said. Junior edge rusher Brennan Jackson “has been a human wrecking ball” in every team period since camp began Aug. 3. His sack total in 11-on-11 drills is probably around 10.
“(Edge coach A.J. Cooper) won’t like it, but I’m going to continue to pull (Jackson) back to make sure he’s ready for Week 1,” Dickert said, “because he just has one way that he knows how to do things, and that’s full-throttle. I love it. … He’s just been unblockable so far through camp.”
Running back Nakia Watson and left guard Brock Dieu did not participate in practice and observed from the sidelines for the second consecutive day. Starting right tackle Ma’ake Fifita, who sustained an injury late last week, is out of his walking boot.
“We just have a bunch of little dings,” Dickert said when asked for an injury update. “We’re being cautious this early in camp, just to make sure those guys are going to be ready to go. We feel confident that those guys are going to be ready as we go through camp.”
Redshirt freshmen Kannon Katzer and Dylan Paine – walk-on Washington natives – shouldered the majority of the first-team workload in place of Watson. True freshmen Djouvensky Schlenbaker and Jaylen Jenkins took most of their reps with the second unit. Dickert reiterated that the Cougars will take a “by-committee” approach to the ground game this season. The coach has been impressed with the work ethic and versatility exhibited by Katzer and Paine, who hail from Spokane and Tumwater, respectively.
“I got a chance to see those two guys bust their tails the last two years on scout team,” Dickert said. “I say it all the time – you just keep working, keep your nose down and opportunities will come about. We like their multiplicity. We want those styles of running backs that can do everything.
“Jaylen is continuing to grow. He hasn’t plateaued yet. Freshman, sometimes you hit that wall, so I’m excited about that. Djouvensky is coming along and we’ll get Nakia back. But there’ll always be a lot of interchanging parts as we keep going throughout the season.”
Star edge rusher Ron Stone Jr. was a limited participant Thursday – the All-Pac-12 first-teamer has been held out of team drills throughout camp for unspecified reasons. Dickert said he expects Stone will be ready before Week 1.
“We’re working on RJ’s progression to get him back going and to be peaking when he needs to be,” Dickert said. “Hopefully, when we get there sometime next week or in the next couple of weeks, we’ll start to elevate where he’s at.”
WSU will take Friday off and return to the field Saturday morning for its first scrimmage of camp, which is closed to the public.
The Philadelphia Eagles sent two scouts to Thursday’s session. At least one NFL scout has been in attendance each day of fall camp.
Langford ‘setting the tempo’ for cornerbacks
Last season, the Cougars relied on Jaylen Watson to lock up their opponents’ top outside receivers. Watson now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Cougars are counting on Derrick Langford Jr. to fill his shoes.
“He takes every day seriously. Now, I think he’s relishing that moment of being that No. 1 corner and being out on that island,” Dickert said of Langford, a senior who started opposite Watson in 2021. “Just like Jaylen last year, you’ve gotta accept that responsibility, because you’re not always going to win. You gotta bounce back and refocus on the next play. But I trust D-Lang. We’re going to put him in situations to go out there and lock up one side of the field.”
Langford, at 6-3 and 200 pounds, seems to be earning his spot atop the depth chart. He consistently keeps pace with the Cougars’ talented outside receivers and often uses his length to break up passes in one-on-ones. Langford and Stribling have had competitive back-and-forth battles throughout camp. Langford, a fourth-year Cougar from Richmond, California, drew a preseason All-Pac-12 honorable mention last month.
“I’m ready for it,” Langford said Wednesday. “I’m ready for whatever comes my way, for real. I can’t wait for the season.”
Chau Smith-Wade appears to be locked in as WSU’s second starter at cornerback. The third-year sophomore was the Cougars’ No. 3 CB last year.
“I think Chau is the next one (behind Langford) that I feel like has taken the next step in his game, and I don’t hesitate there at all,” Dickert said. “I think he’s one of those guys who is playing really, really well. … You see him now in Year 3 being with us – just really comfortable.”
Junior Chris Jackson and Utah State transfer Cam Lampkin have solidified themselves at the next two candidates for playing time at CB. True freshman Javan Robinson is vying for a reserve role. The Cougars suffered a blow this summer, losing senior CB Kaleb Ford-Dement to season-ending shoulder surgery.
“To bring competition into that group – I think that’s what Lampkin has done and even Javan, as a young guy,” Dickert said. “Guys are competing and you’re starting to feel that now at this point in camp, as we get to the first scrimmage on Saturday. Guys want to prove they can play and that we can trust them.
“I tell guys, ‘Don’t press. When we’re out here, you cut it loose and show us what you can do.’ And I think D-Lang is setting the tempo for that group.”
Three big plays
1. Victor’s remarkable one-handed touchdown reception gets our vote for play of the day. It may have been the single-most impressive play of fall camp. On the fifth rep of WSU’s first 11-on-11 period of practice, Victor darted a few yards upfield, cut to his left on a mid-range crossing pattern and found some free space in the middle of the end zone. Ward delivered a hard-thrown pass, which appeared to be a touch too high and a bit behind Victor. No matter. The junior slot receiver decelerated and hopped off one foot, taking an awkward angle on his twisting jump. He stuck his right arm up and flipped his hand outward, palming the ball and tucking it away in one smooth motion as he rolled to the ground for a 15-yard score. Victor stood still for a moment to soak in the TD then put his hands to the side and motioned for his teammates to join the celebration. “I can’t wait to see it on tape,” Dickert said of the play. “I hope we got a good camera shot of it.”
2. Ward dialed up a deep touchdown pass on the first snap of 7-on-7 exercises. He drifted right and, while jogging, launched a high-arcing throw 40 yards toward the back corner of the end zone. Ollie didn’t need to break stride or make any adjustments to his straight vertical route. The ball came down over his shoulder, right into the breadbasket. The sure-handed 6-3 sophomore receiver fell to the turf but maintained possession as Lampkin fought to rip the ball from Ollie’s grasp.
3. Cornerback Chris Jackson collected another interception , one day after he picked off two passes in full-team drills. Lining up with WSU’s second-team defense, Jackson played tight coverage on outside receiver Leyton Smithson, who was running an intermediate out route. Backup QB Brown scrambled left and tossed an off-balance, across-the-body throw about 15 yards toward Smithson, but Jackson slipped in front of the intended target at the last moment and stole the ball away, tapping his feet inbounds as Smithson shoved him to the sideline. Jackson, a Michigan State transfer who played sparingly last year in his first season at WSU, has been the Cougars’ third- most reliable CB this preseason.
“We just need to be versatile. We need to be able to step down in the box, block a linebacker, block a defensive end. But also, can we split it out wide on the very next play and go out there, kick out a corner, make a move one-on-one and get loose? I just like how much we’re moving around, really the variety. … I mean, I love blocking. I love getting my face on somebody, putting them in the dirt. But it’s fun to kinda step outside every once in a while and catch a pass, too.” – WSU tight end Riviere defines a TE’s role in the Cougars’ Air Raid offense.