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Defense maintains advantage; assessing Cougar receiving corps: Notes and observations from Day 11 of Washington State fall camp

Washington State wide receiver Zeriah Beason, with ball, looks for extra yardage after making a reception as cornerback Chau Smith-Wade attempts a tackle during a fall camp practice on 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 11th day of fall camp in Pullman.

The notes

The Cougars’ defense didn’t show many cracks Tuesday under the sun at Rogers Field.

The unit limited big plays, forced several turnovers and put pressure in the backfield, maintaining an advantage over WSU’s offense for the second consecutive practice.

WSU’s first-team defense totaled three sacks and an interception against the Cougars’ top offense across four 11-on-11 periods. The backup defenders tallied two picks, two sacks and recovered a fumble during full-team drills.

Senior strong safety Jordan Lee was among the brightest performers of the day.

He intercepted an errant deep ball from starting quarterback Cameron Ward and made several stops near the line of scrimmage – including a bruising goal-line tackle. Dickert commended Lee in WSU’s post-practice huddle, awarding defensive player of the day to the Nevada transfer. Lee is settling in as the captain of WSU’s new-look safety group.

Star edge rusher Brennan Jackson broke through often, disrupting plays before they could develop and recording two touch sacks on Ward.

“Guys like Brennan Jackson are hard to come by – a guy who works that hard, is that talented and is a good person,” guard Grant Stephens said.

Redshirt freshman edge Lawrence Falatea added two sacks against a reserve WSU offensive line made up mostly of freshmen. Linebacker Hudson Cedarland forced a fumble and rookie safeties Tony Carter and Reece Sylvester snagged picks during 11-on-11s between backups.

The Cougars used disguised pressure packages and sent out unusual sets like the “Cheetah” front that became a staple of their third-down defense in 2021. At one point, the D-line consisted of three edges and a defensive tackle – Jackson lined up inside alongside tackle Antonio Pule while sophomore edges Andrew Edson and Quinn Roff rushed from the outsides. WSU’s linebackers and safeties added extra pressure and fake blitzes. Last week, Dickert had attributed some of WSU’s defensive success this preseason to the creative schemes the Cougars tend to employ on third downs.

“Our defensive package is a lot, especially on third down,” he said.

Ward and WSU’s Air Raid still managed to squeeze in a few nice moments. Crossing patterns and quick out routes proved effective for stretches. Ward completed approximately 18 of 27 passed in the 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 segments of practice. The sophomore transfer found slot receiver Lincoln Victor in the front-left corner of the end zone for a 15-yard TD strike. Ward later hit slot receiver Renard Bell, who was wide open on a shallow comeback route and sprinted ahead for 30 yards.

Lining up with backups, slot receiver Drake Owen – named offensive player of the day after practice – scored two touchdowns in three plays in one stretch of 11-on-11s. Redshirt freshman QB Xavier Ward connected with Owen for TDs of 30 and 17 yards on an intermediate slant pattern and a short hitch route, respectively.

True freshman Emmett Brown got the most work with the second team and completed approximately 10 of 16 passes with an interception. True freshman John Mateer finished 7 of 10 with a pick and a nifty TD (see “big plays” section) while redshirt frosh Xavier Ward finished 8 of 13.

True freshman running back Djouvensky Schlenbaker remains out after sustaining an undisclosed injury during Saturday’s scrimmage. Starting right tackle Ma’ake Fifita and rotational guard Brock Dieu also served as spectators due to injuries. Nickels Armani Marsh and Armauni Archie spent practice together, working through light exercises on the sideline. Reserve edge Raam Stevenson wasn’t suited up, but he participated in some noncontact drills. Freshman tight end Andre Dollar did not practice. Edge Ron Stone Jr. and defensive tackle Nusi Malani were limited participants. Junior running back Nakia Watson, who missed two days last week, wore a yellow no-contact jersey and was held out of full-team periods.

Redshirt freshmen walk-ons Kannon Katzer and Dylan Paine captured the majority of first-team reps at RB. True freshman Jaylen Jenkins rotated in. None of them was effective.

Redshirt freshman Fa’alili Fa’amoe, a former defensive lineman who flipped to offensive tackle this off-season, lined up at left guard with WSU’s first-team offense for the second straight day. Redshirt freshman Christian Hilborn took backup reps at left guard and left tackle. Running backs and offensive linemen stayed after practice for three rounds of up-downs.

Victor and Bell have been WSU’s primary return specialists this preseason. Oregon State transfer Zeriah Beason and Orion Peters, the Cougars’ No. 3 slot receiver, also appear to be in the mix for return duties.

The Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers sent scouts to practice.

Filani talks Cougar receiving corps

WSU’s first-team offense should be well-supplied with talent at the receiver positions in 2022 – that was one of the big talking points this off-season as WSU prepared to install a new Air Raid system. The Cougars’ top four pass-catchers haven’t disappointed at fall camp.

There is also a stable of reliable backup receivers – another topic of conversation in the months leading up to camp. The Cougars’ reserves at the receiver positions have been solid targets this month.

“We have good numbers right now,” first-year receivers coach Joel Filani said. “I’m excited about that.”

Cougar receivers are showing coaches “a lot of things that we expected,” Filani added.

The Cougar receiving corps entered fall camp with four established players: slotbacks Bell and Victor and outside receivers De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie.

Bell is a seventh-year senior who amassed nearly 1,700 yards in a Cougars uniform between 2017-20. He’s back after missing last season with an ACL injury. Victor, a junior, flashed big-play potential in a reserve role last year while developing into a leader behind the scenes. Stribling looked like a budding star last season as a true freshman starter at outside receiver. Ollie held down the other starting outside spot throughout 2021 and played his best ball late in the season.

“It’s good to have guys who have played, guys who kinda know the standard,” Filani said.

“Now, you’re in a situation where guys have played, but have they been the guy? Guys gotta make sure they are working toward that situation, where they can be the guy that we rely on and can be consistent.”

Who will be Ward’s first look on Saturdays? It’s hard to say. The four starters have been almost equally productive this preseason.

The Cougs won’t be lacking pass-catching options. At outside receiver, redshirt freshman Tsion Nunnally has emerged as a deep-ball threat. Zeriah Beason “has been a pleasant surprise,” Filani said.

“He’s got sure hands. That’s the biggest thing for him,” Filani said of the sophomore transfer who started 13 games over the past two seasons at Oregon State. “Once he can break some habits, he’ll be a really good player. But he’s got sure hands, he runs well, he’s deceptively quick. He’ll be a good player for us.”

Expect Beason and Nunnally to be the Cougars’ No. 3 and 4 outside receivers. “Competition is thick” inside, Filani noted. Redshirt freshman Orion Peters and Owen – a junior from Camas – seem to be the current favorites to play behind Victor and Bell. The wild card at slot receiver is Robert Ferrel, a senior transfer who rang up 1,289 receiving yards and 15 TDs over the past two seasons at Incarnate Word under coach Eric Morris – now the Cougs’ offensive coordinator. Ferrel has been absent from camp over the past two weeks.

“Obviously, when Robert gets in the mix, Robert will bring another element,” Filani said. “Robert has played a lot of ball and he knows the offense very well. I know he’ll be able to help us. When he comes back, that inside room is even deeper.”

Dickert wants the Cougs to have eight receivers ready to contribute by Week 1.

Three big plays

1. Mateer provided the highlight of the day for WSU’s offense during practice’s final 11-on-11 period. The true freshman backup from Texas was chased out of the pocket almost immediately after collecting the snap.

He scurried to his right and, while on the run, loaded up on his back foot and launched a deep ball toward reserve slot receiver Josh Meredith, who’d been left uncovered about 40 yards down the field. Despite his off-balance release, Mateer delivered the pass with power and precision. Meredith loped underneath the ball near the end zone’s right pylon for a smooth catch and easy touchdown.

2. Two true freshman safeties teamed up for a stellar takeaway in 7-on-7 drills. Free safety Reece Sylvester, a Houston native, got a bead on an intermediate crossing route and jumped QB Brown’s throw over the middle. Sylvester leapt in front of slot receiver Orion Peters and tipped the pass high into the air. The ball seemed to float as strong safety Tony Carter, a rookie from Jacksonville, Florida, tried to pinpoint its downward trajectory. Carter made an awkward yet acrobatic interception, flipping his shoulders sideways and bending his torso backwards to secure the pick. Sylvester and Carter have been singled out by WSU coaches as young players who have an opportunity to see playing time early in their college careers. Sylvester registered an interception of his own later in the day, sliding on the turf to nab a low-thrown pass from Mateer in full-team drills.

3. Jordan Lee – recognized mostly for his hard-hitting tackling – dished out some punishment at the goal line, preventing a touchdown during an 11-on-11 red-zone drill late in practice. The Cougars’ first-team offense attempted a receiver screen to Stribling, who turned upfield and followed behind two blockers for about 3 yards.

Lee dodged the traffic and planted himself directly in front of Stribling at the 2-yard line. The collision could be heard clearly from across Rogers Field. Lee used his shoulder to crash squarely into Stribling and sending the sophomore receiver onto his back.

Their words

“When I got here, I heard a lot about how it was an inexperienced group and things like that. That’s true, but it’s a talented group. … It’s one of the hardest-working groups I’ve ever been around, of any position group, and I take a lot of pride in being a part of this group. I feel blessed.” – WSU right guard Grant Stephens, a grad transfer from Northern Colorado, on the Cougars’ offensive line.