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Sports >  WSU football

Cougars emphasize third downs; DTs coach evaluates position: Notes and observations from Day 13 of Washington State fall camp

Aug. 18, 2022 Updated Thu., Aug. 18, 2022 at 6:58 p.m.

Washington State defensive lineman Malachi Ledbetter, back middle, brings down WSU receiver Leyton Smithson during a preseason scrimmage on Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State defensive lineman Malachi Ledbetter, back middle, brings down WSU receiver Leyton Smithson 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 13th day of fall camp in Pullman.

The notes

Crowd noise blared from the speakers at Gesa Field as the Cougars wrapped up Thursday’s practice with a few full-team periods designed to simulate in-game situations.

WSU’s first-team offense started from its 35-yard line for the first 11-on-11 drill. Quarterback Cameron Ward was given less than 50 seconds to work. The goal: field-goal range.

The Air Raid passing game operated quickly and efficiently. Ward opened the series with a couple of safe throws to sophomore De’Zhaun Stribling. After an incompletion, Stribling induced a pass interference call on cornerback Cam Lampkin. Ward connected with slot receiver Lincoln Victor for a 15-yard gain over the middle. The Cougars offense let the clock tick down to 3 seconds, took a timeout and sent out the kicking unit.

Dickert called a timeout right before the snap to ice place-kicker Dean Janikowski. Unfazed, the All-Pac-12 sophomore drilled a 43-yarder to remain perfect on field-goal attempts in team drills throughout fall camp.

Afterward, WSU turned its attention to third downs.

The automated crowd noise increased and the yardsticks moved constantly as the Cougars worked on their play-calling for various third-down scenarios – mostly third-and-10, third-and-5 and third-and-2. Starting and reserve units alternated every four plays.

Ward’s first four-play series yielded a first down on a pass interference call, but nothing otherwise. Edge rusher Brennan Jackson posted two sacks and Ward misfired on a third-and-10. On his second try, Ward tossed a 20-yard completion to Stribling to convert a third-and-10. The Cougars’ No. 1 offense went 3 of 8 on third-down conversions as the defense mixed looks up front and disguised pressure packages. WSU’s offense converted 7 of 20 third-down tries.

Freshman QBs John Mateer, Xavier Ward and Emmett Brown took four snaps apiece with WSU’s No. 2 offense during third-down drills.

Mateer scrambled for a first on third-and-short, but sophomore edge Andrew Edson countered with a blow-by sack, then sniffed out a screen play to running back Dylan Paine.

Brown completed two passes underneath for conversions but was sacked by defensive tackle Ty Garay-Harris on a third-and-10.

Xavier Ward couldn’t move the sticks. He had an accurate deep ball dropped by Tsion Nunnally.

The Cougars started practice at Rogers Field and devoted the first part of the session to team walk-throughs – their top offensive and defensive units spent a long portion of the morning split apart, honing their fundamentals against scout teams on opposite ends of the field.

WSU focused on special teams before transitioning to situational drills inside its stadium. Seventh-year senior slot receiver Renard Bell appears to be the favorite to shoulder kick-returning responsibilities.

Other players catching punts and kickoffs this preseason include Victor, transfer receiver Zeriah Beason, running back Jaylen Jenkins and true freshman receiver Leyton Smithson.

Redshirt freshman Christian Hilborn, one of a few players in the mix for the starting job at left guard, took first-team reps at left tackle during 11-on-11 periods in place of junior starter Jarrett Kingston, who did not practice. Redshirt freshman Fa’alili Fa’amoe, a former defensive lineman who switched to offensive tackle this offseason, held down the No. 1 spot at left guard.

Starting right tackle Ma’ake Fifita and guard Brock Dieu are still out, but both worked through rehab exercises on the sidelines. Fifita on Thursday was named to the watch list for the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year Award.

Starting cornerbacks Derrick Langford Jr. and Chau Smith-Wade were held out of full-team workouts. Freshman tight end Andre Dollar and rookie running back Djouvensky Schlenbaker exercised lightly on the sideline. Edges Ron Stone Jr. and Raam Stevenson were limited participants, as was backup nickel Armauni Archie.

Spokane product Sam Lockett III worked primarily with WSU’s first team at free safety. The junior college transfer is one of three players competing for the job.

Redshirt freshman edge Lawrence Falatea, following a strong performance at Saturday’s scrimmage, has apparently climbed into contention for a rotational role. He replaced Edson in WSU’s second unit during team periods.

After practice’s final whistle sounded, water balloons started flying around the field. Shrieks of laughter cut through the stadium for the next several minutes as players pelted each other with hard-thrown balloons.

A couple of assistants got drenched, too.

The Cincinnati Bengals and Las Vegas Raiders sent scouts to practice.

Kaligis evaluates best DT options

WSU’s three top defensive tackles seem to be equally reliable options. How will the Cougars divide the reps on Saturdays?

“I told them, ‘If you’re making plays, we’re going to ride you,’ ” DTs coach Pete Kaligis said. “That’s what it comes down to, rotation-wise.”

Kaligis considers the competition for DT reps to be “wide open” between several proven players. Seniors Antonio Pule III, Amir Mujahid and Christian Mejia are the leaders and most experienced contributors in the room, with 22 starts between them last year. WSU’s Week 1 starters will almost certainly be two of those three. Pule/Mujahid appears to be the most common first-team pairing.

WSU padded its depth this off-season with the addition of transfer Nusi Malani. Kaligis has also been impressed with redshirt freshman David Gusta. The first-year WSU assistant said Malani and Gusta are competing for the fourth backup spot.

Kaligis provided a brief assessment on each of WSU’s top five DTs:

“Mejia, he’s so strong,” the former longtime Wyoming assistant said. “That’s a big body that’s just strong. He’s got long levers.”

“(Mujahid) has been playing with great pad level. He’s been consistent. He’s been the leader. He’s been energetic. I sort of call him the ‘plumber.’ He’s gonna plug the gaps. He’s going to do it every day. I know I can trust him right now. But yet he’s still shedding and making plays.”

“Pule’s got it all. Pule has the first step, he has the hands, he’s got the explosion, he’s got the power. For him, it’s just staying disciplined with his eyes.”

“Gusta’s got power and it’s strong, raw power. For him, it’s still learning it.”

“Nusi’s got that ‘get-off.’ He’s got that twitch.”

Earlier this week, Dickert called the DTs the team’s “most improved” position group.

Three big plays

1. Edge rusher Brennan Jackson registered two sacks in the first four plays of an 11-on-11 exercise late in practice that emphasized third-down play-calling. On the first snap of the period, a third-and-5 , Jackson got past right tackle Jack Wilson – lining up with the starters in place of Fifita – and blitzed the backfield in a hurry, tagging Ward on the shoulder for a quick “touch” sack.

2. Three plays later, on a third-and-10, Jackson brought pressure from the other edge of the line and shed a block from l Hilborn – lining up with WSU’s first unit in place of absent starter Kingston – to get a hand on Ward, who was stepping up and out of a collapsing pocket, and just about to deliver a long pass. Jackson held his arms out to the side in celebration throughout his jog toward his enthusiastic defensive teammates on the sideline. The junior from Temecula, California, has been “unblockable” all preseason, Dickert noted recently.

3. Ward threw a strike with pressure in his face to pick up a third-and-long later in the same period. The sophomore transfer sat calmly in the pocket and surveyed the field as his protection began to collapse. He had just enough time to fire off a clean pass above a fast-approaching defensive tackle. Ward placed the ball perfectly for Stribling, who went up for a 20-yard reception near the left sideline to convert a third-and-10.

Their words

“What I really appreciate about coach Dickert is he has allowed me to be myself. I also know who he is as a man. I know the culture he wants to build, and it’s about love – it’s about loving these young men more so than coaching. Coaching is easy. The part of it is we can pour into these young men everything that we have. That’s what I love about this staff.” – Kaligis on his impressions of WSU’s program after eight months on staff.

“I’ve always looked up to him, but now that I’ve moved to nickel (from strong safety) and now that I’m kinda right behind him, he’s that much more of a leader to me. I see what he does on the field – he’s very calm and collected. He has a lot of poise. When he comes up to the sideline, he’s always giving me pointers. … He’s always telling me, ‘Moku, just breathe. Take a deep breath and see what you’ve got on the play. Don’t think too much.’ ” – Reserve nickel Tanner Moku on senior nickel Armani Marsh, a WSU captain and Spokane native.

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