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Cougars offensive line sees movement, Dickert looking for bounce-back after ‘sloppy’ practice: Notes from Day 10 of WSU camp

Washington State guard Grant Stephens, left, blocks against defensive tackle Ty Garay-Harris during a fall camp practice Aug. 9 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 10th day of fall camp in Pullman.

The notes

Dickert spoke frankly Monday to open his post-practice news conference. He was disappointed with the sluggish nature of the day’s session at Rogers Field.

“First off, let’s start with this – this wasn’t the standard of practice that we need to have to win games,” the first-year coach said. “I was talking to the veterans after, directly to them: ‘There’s a standard to what we do, and today was sloppy.’

“I didn’t think we chose the right mindset to come and get it, and that’s not going to win football games come Saturdays. I’m really hoping for those guys to respond.”

The Cougars looked disjointed for stretches – most noticeably on offense – as the sun beat down on this dog day of fall camp. The usually sharp Air Raid system struggled to take off in team periods. Dropped passes haven’t been a problem this preseason, but they were an issue Monday. Starting QB Cameron Ward had one of his toughest days of camp, throwing two interceptions in 7-on-7 drills. He connected on approximately 15 of 26 of his passes in 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 segments. Receivers Zeriah Beason, Orion Peters and Tsion Nunnally each had catches of over 15 yards, but the passing game was otherwise held in check.

WSU’s defensive front forced three fumbles and largely bottled up the Cougars’ ground game in full-team periods and inside-running drills. WSU’s offensive line is still without starting right tackle Ma’ake Fifita and rotational guard Brock Dieu, both of whom are recovering from injuries.

Redshirt freshmen Kannon Katzer and Dylan Paine split first-string reps at running back with true freshman speedster Jaylen Jenkins. Junior Nakia Watson, the front-runner to start at RB, returned to the field in a limited capacity after missing the past two practices. Reserve RB Jouvensly Bazil also was back in action and sporting a yellow no-contact jersey. He missed about a week with an undisclosed injury. True freshman RB Djouvensky Schlenbaker was sidelined due to an unspecified injury sustained during Saturday’s scrimmage.

“Just some little things from the scrimmage,” Dickert said of Schlenbaker, a bruising runner from Bellingham who has worked his way into contention for a playing role this year.

Dickert confirmed that two reserve players will miss the season – receiver CJ Moore and guard Rodrick Tialavea. Moore suffered a “non-contact injury” on the first day of fall camp Aug. 3, Dickert said. Tialavea sustained a “lower-leg injury” three days later. Moore had been in the mix for backup reps at outside receiver. Tialavea was competing for a reserve role at one of the guard spots.

“Those guys will be having their surgeries this week,” Dickert said. “I was excited about both of those guys contributing to the football team. This is part of the game and we’ll have to have some other guys step up and replace them.”

Standout slot receiver Lincoln Victor was a full participant. He had been held out of most full-team drills over the past two weeks. Standout edge-rusher Ron Stone Jr. remains a limited participant. Backup nickel Armauni Archie and Raam Stevenson, a promising young edge, weren’t suited up.

The starting job at free safety is up for grabs and it seems as though Sam Lockett III has taken the lead. The junior from Spokane shouldered first-team reps Monday. Redshirt freshman Adrian Shepherd had held down starting duties for the first two weeks of camp. Hard-hitting redshirt freshman Jaden Hicks impressed during Saturday’s scrimmage and earned some first-string looks at free safety two days later. Hicks and Shepherd are cross-training at strong safety behind senior starter Jordan Lee, who appeared in more than 40 games for Nevada’s defense over the past four years.

“We’re just finding the right fit for each guy,” Dickert said. “It’s going to be a mixture of all four of those guys playing serious reps. We need all those guys.”

True freshman outside receiver Leyton Smithson and redshirt freshman linebacker Gavin Barthiel earned the two nods for players of the day. Dickert expects Smithson to make an impact on special teams this year and potentially develop into a deep-ball threat for the Cougars’ offense.

“I’m willing to do whatever for this team, where I can contribute the most,” said Smithson, who was recruited as a safety after playing every skill position at Squalicum High in Bellingham. “I was excited to fly around and hit people on defense, but it’s been good staying on the offensive side of the ball, making plays and trying to execute.”

Scouts representing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals were in attendance.

Movement up front

Fa’alili Fa’amoe played defensive tackle on WSU’s scout team last year.

The redshirt freshman from American Samoa flipped to the offensive line this offseason to provide support for a group that lost several key pieces after the 2021 campaign.

Fa’amoe seemed to be settled in as WSU’s backup left tackle earlier this preseason.

But the Cougars have found themselves a bit shorthanded at the guard positions, so they shifted Fa’amoe inside and gave him a test run during Saturday’s scrimmage at Gesa Field.

On Monday, Fa’amoe lined up with WSU’s first unit at left guard.

Asked after practice to share observations he had gathered from watching film of the scrimmage, Dickert shined a light on Fa’amoe.

“I think he can handle it,” Dickert said of the 6-5, 295-pounder. “He’s a great athlete. And we still got all this time to work with him. He keeps getting better and better. He has really jumped off the film to prove he can be in one of those top five positions. … We’re excited about his progress, and it’s much-needed.”

As of now, Dickert considers Fa’amoe to be one of WSU’s best five available O-linemen.

“We’re trying to find the right combination,” he said. “When Ma’ake comes back, is he still in that five? Right now, he’s really proven that he’s one of our five best athletes and he’s getting better and better every single day.”

WSU’s Week 1 starter at left guard will likely be one of three redshirt freshmen: Fa’amoe, Christian Hilborn or Dieu. Hilborn took second-team snaps at LG on Monday and got some work at left tackle Saturday.

“We’re going to be putting some of those guys in different situations, just to find the right combination and to be ready for a lot of different things that will happen throughout the year,” Dickert said.

Senior Northern Colorado transfer Grant Stephens earned All-Big Sky recognition as a tackle last season. He’s been the Cougars’ No. 1 right guard throughout camp, but can flex outside in a pinch. Fifita and Jarrett Kingston started at the guard positions last year but were moved to right and left tackle, respectively, just after the season to take over for longtime starters Abraham Lucas and Liam Ryan.

“We want to lock in Kingston and Ma’ake at tackle,” Dickert said. “I think we’re moving towards really anchoring those guys out there, then let’s find the best three on the inside and help some of those less-experienced guys limit the space.”

Three big plays

1. Interceptions have been rare for QB Cameron Ward throughout camp, but the sophomore transfer threw two on consecutive snaps during Monday’s 7-on-7 drills. Senior linebacker Daiyan Henley collected the first one about midway through a practice that featured more than a few mistakes from WSU’s offense. The senior Nevada transfer, a potential star for the Cougs, camped out in shallow coverage and kept his eyes in the backfield. Ward attempted an intermediate pass over the middle, but misfired low. Henley hopped vertically and made the pick with ease, then scooted into open field.

2. Ward looked for payback on the ensuing play and floated a 30-yard pass toward the right corner of the end zone. He didn’t put enough air under it. Cornerback Chau Smith-Wade drifted a couple of yards in front of the intended target and bounced up for a relatively easy takeaway. By our count, those were Ward’s second and third interceptions thrown during 7-on-7 drills this preseason.

3. Tsion Nunnally snagged the most impressive catch of the day later in the 7-on-7 period of practice. Lining up with a mix of first-teamers and backups, the 6-3 outside receiver raced up the sideline on a red-zone fly route and used his long strides to slip past 5-11 cornerback Cam Lampkin as the two approached the goal line. Reserve QB Xavier Ward saw the mismatch and attempted a 15-yard, back-shoulder pass. Nunnally jumped slightly and spun around for a touchdown catch over Lampkin’s head. Nunnally is producing highlights with more regularity as fall camp progresses. The redshirt freshman has become a somewhat reliable big-play target and appears to be established in WSU’s pass-catching rotation.

Their words

“Really pleased with a lot of our playmakers on offense, going out there and making plays. Defensively, our communication levels need to continue to grow. This offense really stresses you with its adjustments. One thing we don’t have time for is maturing on (game day). We gotta mature this week and that’s going to be our focus.” – Dickert on his takeaways after watching film of the Cougars’ scrimmage Saturday.