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Sports >  WSU football

Cougar passing game shines early, defenders answer: Notes and observations from Day 14 of Washington State fall camp

Aug. 19, 2022 Updated Fri., Aug. 19, 2022 at 5:24 p.m.

Washington State safety Jaden Hicks reacts during a preseason scrimmage on Aug. 13 at Gesa Field in Pullman. Hicks is one of three players competing for the starting job at free safety.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State safety Jaden Hicks reacts during a preseason scrimmage on Aug. 13 at Gesa Field in Pullman. Hicks is one of three players competing for the starting job at free safety. (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 14th day of fall camp in Pullman.

The notes

WSU’s offense and defense traded blows – and a healthy bit of smack talk – during an energetic and competitive practice session Friday at Rogers Field.

The Cougars’ Air Raid passing game had the clear edge in 7-on-7 drills.

Four quarterbacks combined to complete 21 of 24 passes. Starting QB Cameron Ward finished 7 of 8. He threw a 30-yard touchdown strike to sophomore De’Zhaun Stribling. Strong safety Jordan Lee forced the lone incompletion, tipping a 30-yard ball out of a receiver’s hands at the last moment.

Ward’s backups didn’t take many shots downfield but looked sharp on quick outs and short passes over the middle. Slot receiver Josh Meredith was the top reserve performer in 7-on-7 drills. He totaled four receptions, including a 10-yard, toe-tap TD catch from true freshman Emmett Brown.

When WSU added linemen to the mix, the defense swiped the advantage.

The Cougars’ first-team D-line generated steady pressure and spoiled three of the offense’s first six snaps – senior defensive tackle Christian Mejia recorded a sack and a fumble recovery and edge rusher Brennan Jackson forced a throwaway. True freshman Jaylen Jenkins broke off a big gain, but the Cougars couldn’t get the ground game moving otherwise. The four QBs settled mostly for check-downs and quick throws, completing 9 of 14 passes in the first full-team period.

WSU concluded practice with an 11-on-11 segment that featured a mix of up-tempo possessions – measured with referees and down-and-distance markers – and goal-line scenarios.

Ward completed 6 of 9 passes, completing a nifty 30-yarder on the run to slot receiver Renard Bell and connecting with Stribling for a short TD. Jackson registered a sack and senior nickel Armani Marsh picked off Ward during one of the goal-line drills. Lee added a big hit in the backfield on starting running back Nakia Watson. The back-and-forth nature of the drill resulted in offensive and defensive players jawing at each other after most plays.

WSU’s reserve defense had the advantage over the Cougars’ backup offense. Redshirt freshman edge Lawrence Falatea logged two sacks against a young second-team O-line. Linebacker Kyle Thornton added a sack and true freshman cornerback Javan Robinson tallied two interceptions.

True freshman QB John Mateer took the bulk of second-team reps. He completed 13 of 17 passes in 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 periods and went 5 of 8 in the final full-team exercise of the day – fellow backup QBs Brown and Xavier Ward threw two passes apiece in the last 11-on-11 drill.

Sophomore kicker Dean Janikowski, an All-Pac-12 first-teamer last season, went 4 for 4 to remain perfect this preseason on field-goal attempts in full-team drills. His longest kick of the day came from approximately 50 yards out.

Watson was the primary ball-carrier for WSU’s first-team offense. Jenkins rotated in and redshirt freshmen walk-ons Kannon Katzer and Dylan Paine split time with starters and reserves. The RBs stayed after practice for extra conditioning drills following a lackluster day on the ground.

WSU’s top two cornerbacks, senior Derrick Langford Jr. and sophomore Chau Smith-Wade, were not suited up and spent the day observing. Juniors Chris Jackson and Cam Lampkin fared respectably as replacement starters.

Starting right tackle Ma’ake Fifita and rotational guard Brock Dieu worked through light rehab exercises on the sideline, as did true freshman running back Djouvensky Schlenbaker and rookie tight end Andre Dollar. Offensive line coach Clay McGuire said Fifita and Dieu are “really close” to returning.

“Our strength staff and the training staff have done a great job with those guys,” McGuire said. “They’ll be just fine.”

Starting left tackle Jarrett Kingston was a full participant after missing Thursday’s practice. Limited participants included free safety Sam Lockett III, nickel Armauni Archie and edges Ron Stone Jr. and Raam Stevenson.

Redshirt freshman Jaden Hicks, who began fall camp as Lee’s backup at strong safety, switched to free safety recently and joined a three-man competition for the starting job – along with Lockett and redshirt freshman Adrian Shepherd. Hicks shouldered first-string reps on Friday.

“I just want to play – anywhere I can play, anywhere I can help the team,” Hicks said.

“Last year, I was behind two seniors. I wasn’t seeing the field a lot. … I kept working this offseason, really kept working. I got stronger and faster. This year, when it’s my time to shine, I’ll be ready.”

Fa’alili Fa’amoe, the former defensive lineman who flipped to offensive tackle this off-season, lined up with the starters at left guard for the fifth consecutive practice. Christian Hilborn played left guard and left tackle with the reserves.

“We’ve got a handful of guys that are kinda battling for that spot,” McGuire said of the left guard position.

Fa’amoe, Hilborn and Dieu – all redshirt freshmen – are the most likely candidates to start WSU’s Week 1 matchup against Idaho on Sept. 3.

“Christian kinda had a whole week last week to go with the 1s (starters) and see if he can jell with that unit,” McGuire said. “And we wanted to see ‘Lili’ have the opportunity to do the same for a whole week. We haven’t made a decision on it yet. We still got one more scrimmage to go, then we’ll try to figure out who’s going to be in that role moving forward.”

The Cougars will hold their final preseason scrimmage Saturday morning at Gesa Field. The mock game is closed to the public.

WSU coaches will be highlighting several position battles for evaluation – left guard, free safety, backup QB and backup running back among them.

Three big plays

1. Cameron Ward showed off one of the distinguishing features of his game during a full-team drill late in practice. The sophomore QB seems to be blessed with some rare ability that allows him to deliver accurate, high-velocity passes while on the move or off-balance. Ward demonstrated on a designed rollout play. He dashed to the right and maintained a relatively brisk pace as he scanned his receiving options. About 5 yards before reaching the sideline, Ward fired a strike with a quick release. He hit slot receiver Renard Bell between the numbers about 20 yards downfield. Bell had found himself wide open as the Cougars’ defensive backs eyed Ward.

2. Rollout passes usually work in Ward’s favor, but he was baited into a red-zone interception a few plays after the big gain to Bell. WSU’s offense, set up from inside the 5-yard line, dialed up another bootleg play to the right. Ward scurried toward the sideline and looked for openings. Just before he went out of bounds, Ward thought he’d found a window. Receiver Donovan Ollie appeared to have an advantage in positioning in the front corner of the end zone. Ward threw a dart in his direction. Senior nickel Marsh was waiting on it, hiding behind the target. He slipped in front of Ollie with a smooth motion, stole the ball and tip-toed inbounds at the 2-yard line.

3. Robinson – perhaps the Cougars’ brightest defensive rookie of fall camp – recorded a pair of impressive interceptions to cap practice’s final two periods of 11-on-11 drills. Backup QB Xavier Ward tossed a 15-yard pass over the middle toward Drake Owen. Robinson jumped the route, cutting off Owen at the last moment to come away with the pick. On the next series, Mateer threw a goal-line pass in the direction of Zeriah Beason, who was on a crossing route in the back of the end zone. Robinson, a step behind Beason, made a diving attempt and pulled the ball out of the receiver’s grasp as the two tumbled to the ground. Robinson has emerged as WSU’s No. 5 option at cornerback.

Their words

“It’s been nothing but a blessing. That’s one of the men that really brought me up and elevated my game. He’s been literally teaching me life stuff and telling me to get in the film room, telling me all this stuff.

“When I was at strong safety, when I was behind him, he was bringing me up, telling me, ‘You can play free (safety). You can do this.’ He really helped me.

“That’s one of the biggest reasons I am where I am today.” – Hicks on his relationship with strong safety Jordan Lee, a senior Nevada transfer. Hicks and Lee were high school teammates for a season at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas.

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