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Sports >  WSU football

Cougars keep it light, play round of ‘knockout’; No separation in free safety battle: Notes and observations from Day 12 of Washington State fall camp

Aug. 17, 2022 Updated Wed., Aug. 17, 2022 at 7:56 p.m.

Washington State safety Jaden Hicks, left, collides with wide receiver Donovan Ollie during a preseason scrimmage on Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State safety Jaden Hicks, left, collides with wide receiver Donovan Ollie during a preseason scrimmage on Saturday at Gesa 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 12th day of fall camp in Pullman.

The notes

WSU conducted a light practice Wednesday at Gesa Field.

The Cougars went without shoulder pads. They split up by position group and spent most of the morning working on various technical aspects of the game in slow-paced individual drills.

The offense staged walk-throughs for a significant chunk of the abbreviated session, ironing out some of the finer details in their new Air Raid offense. WSU worked on plenty of clock-management plays (kneel-downs and spiked passes) and used a lengthy stretch of practice for half-speed special teams.

For the Cougars, it was a necessary cool-down day, an educational day.

From an observer’s perspective, it seemed mostly uneventful – other than one round of 7-on-7 drills, two 11-on-11 periods and an amusing postpractice activity.

The 11-on-11 segment provided the most entertainment. Backup quarterbacks Xavier Ward and John Mateer were each given 44 seconds to march the offense into field-goal range. Their drives began on the 35-yard line, so they would probably need to gain about 30 yards to give kicker Dean Janikowski a chance. (Note: The Cougars’ linemen played at minimal speed in this drill and running plays were usually blown dead after 3 to 5 yards).

Mateer was up first. The true freshman from Texas worked quickly, tossing a 20-yard pass over the middle to starting outside receiver Donovan Ollie and connecting on a couple of quick outs. But he had a high pass tipped and intercepted in the red zone by middle linebacker Francisco Mauigoa.

Ward, a redshirt freshman from Corona, California, completed 2 of 4 passes for about 20 yards and running back Kannon Katzer picked up a few yards on the ground to set Janikowski up for a 52-yard attempt with 4 seconds remaining. The All-Pac-12 sophomore’s kick was on the money. Dickert named Janikowski and long snapper Simon Samarzich co-players of the day.

Ward, Mateer and true freshman Emmett Brown are in a race for the No. 2 spot at QB behind Cameron Ward.

The three reserves threw four passes apiece during the day’s lone 7-on-7 – Mateer had the best pass of the period (see “big plays” section below).

Ward, the sophomore transfer, got some extra work in 7-on-7s. He completed 7 of 12 passes with a 40-yard strike to sophomore De’Zhaun Stribling and an interception. Ward misfired behind his intended target on a crossing pattern and senior strong safety Jordan Lee was there to collect the pick. Dickert wants his defense to produce 30 takeaways in team drills by the end of camp. Safety Sam Lockett III estimates that the defense has forced 16 turnovers .

Running backs Nakia Watson and Jouvensly Bazil were full participants. The two had missed a few days last week due to injury and were limited over the past three practices. Edge rusher Raam Stevenson Jr. took part in every drill while sporting a yellow no-contact jersey. He had been held out of practice since sustaining an injury Aug. 8. Senior nickel Armani Marsh was a full participant in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills for the first time this preseason. Nickel Armauni Archie, running back Djouvensky Schlenbaker, guard Brock Dieu and tackle Ma’ake Fifita worked through light exercises on the sideline.

After practice, staffers wheeled in a portable basketball hoop and propped it up on the goal line. The Cougars played a friendly game of “knockout” (also known as “bump”). Dickert explained the rules:

First, the 10 best hoopsters on defense line up and shoot off. The top two finishers advance. Then, the sharp-shooters on offense compete and the final two left standing move on to face the defenders in the finals.

A 6-foot-5, 300-pound offensive lineman prevailed. Redshirt freshman guard Christian Hilborn showed off and cruised through the event. He eliminated edge Ron Stone Jr. with a jumper and flipped in a putback just afterward to boot Stevenson for the final knockout.

Hilborn raised his arms and put on a blank face while being mobbed by teammates in the end zone. Running back Dylan Paine partnered with Hilborn in the finals.

‘Healthy competition’ at free safety

There has been no separation in the race for the starting job at free safety, according to assistant Jordan Malone.

“I wouldn’t say any guy has a slight edge,” said Malone, who coaches both safety positions and nickel.

Junior Sam Lockett III and redshirt freshman Adrian Shepherd have been in a position battle since spring ball. Shepherd lined up with WSU’s No. 1 defense for the first nine days of fall camp, but Lockett replaced him earlier this week. Redshirt freshman Jaden Hicks apparently entered the competition last week following a string of solid showings at practice and a hard-hitting effort at Saturday’s scrimmage.

“It’s a healthy competition. All of those guys have been helping each other,” Malone said. “But yes, it’s an open verbalization of competition between those guys. Those guys have been approaching it as a group, but also competing among each other and trying to really secure that position.”

Lockett shared some first-team reps with Hicks over the past two days. Hicks was a limited participant Wednesday, so Lockett held down starting responsibilities while Shepherd played with the second unit.

“We’ve been having guys mix and match with the 1s and 2s, just trying to even out the reps,” Malone said. “I get to see them running with the 1s and communicating with the 2s. … We’re trying to put them in every situation possible, so we can best judge and figure out who that guy is going to be.”

The most experienced of the three, Lockett played two seasons with Utah State after graduating from Gonzaga Prep. The redshirt junior spent last season in the junior college ranks at City College of San Francisco before returning to Eastern Washington this spring.

“It’s a real learning process for me,” Lockett said of taking starting reps at WSU, “but being out there with J-Lee and Armani (Marsh), beside those guys – they just know the scheme so well. It’s been great to play beside them.”

Lockett and Marsh, a sixth-year Cougar and a team captain, were high school teammates for the Bullpups.

Lee, who appeared in 47 games over the past four years at Nevada, is locked in as WSU’s No. 1 strong safety.

“He and Marsh have played a lot – a lot, a lot – of football,” Malone said.

Lee’s backup will be either Hicks or Shepherd, both of whom have been cross-training at free and strong safety. Dickert said last week that WSU will rely heavily this season on a combination of Lee, Lockett, Shepherd and Hicks.

“I feel confident with those guys, no matter who is in,” Malone said, “just because of what they’ve shown in practice with their communication, with the checks. I feel pretty good about all those guys.”

Archie, who missed all but one game last season with an injury, has solidified himself as Marsh’s backup for the second consecutive preseason.

“We’re really excited about that position coming back,” Malone said of the nickels.

Three big plays

1. Middle linebacker Francisco Mauigoa snagged an interception to deny WSU’s offense in the red zone. The redshirt freshman, lining up with the No. 1 defense during an 11-on-11 period of practice, played zone coverage in the middle of the field and watched for crossing routes. Ollie ran a slant pattern and passed in front of Mauigoa, who sidestepped to his left to block the outside receiver’s path toward the end zone – in case Ollie were to catch the ball and turn upfield. Mateer zipped a high pass over the middle. Ollie stretched out for the ball, but tipped it off his fingertips. Mauigoa was well-positioned to snatch the pick. Usually the first middle linebacker on the field, Mauigoa has split starting reps with junior Travion Brown throughout camp.

2. True freshman outside receiver Leyton Smithson bolted off the line and raced past cornerback Justin Anderson on a downfield vertical route in 7-on-7 drills. Mateer let a deep ball fly toward the left sideline. Smithson, having left his defender in the dust, decelerated and made a 40-yard reception look effortless. Smithson has been one of the Cougars’ most impressive rookies this preseason. The Squalicum High (Bellingham) graduate has drawn steady praise from coaches and teammates this month. He could be a playmaker for WSU’s offense before too long. “We knew he was fast, but he’s super fast,” receivers coach Joel Filani said Tuesday.

3. Janikowski, the Cougars’ kicking ace who earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors last season, drilled a long-range field goal to cap off a timed 11-on-11 exercise near the end of practice. WSU’s offense picked up about 30 yards in 40 seconds, setting up Janikowski for a 52-yard attempt with only a few seconds left on the clock. His kick was right down the middle and cleared the crossbar by 3 or 4 yards. Janikowski has been flawless throughout camp on field-goal tries in full-team periods.

Their words

“I can’t wait to hit somebody else. But it’s been good to play against some of the better guys in the Pac-12, I feel like. They have given me a good look. … Just some dynamic dudes.” – Lockett on WSU’s receiving corps.

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