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Cougar Air Raid impresses in up-tempo drill, backups produce big plays: Notes from WSU’s final preseason scrimmage

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Washington State’s football team staged its final fall scrimmage Saturday to wrap up the “camp” portion of its preseason. The Cougars will practice for two more weeks before opening their season Sept. 3 at home against Idaho. Below are notes and observations from WSU’s mock game at Gesa Field. (All statistics are unofficial.)

Scrimmage recap

The Cougars’ No. 1 offense made only a couple of early appearances, then spent the rest of the morning watching from the sideline as backups competed for reps. But the two drives featuring WSU’s starters provided an encouraging glimpse of the Air Raid’s up-tempo capabilities.

WSU’s first-team offense operated quickly and efficiently during a pair of scoring possessions that were essentially two-minute drills. Quarterback Cameron Ward led the hurry-up offense and took control of the chains moving with accurate, quick-release passes to the sidelines. He completed 9 of 10 attempts on his opening series, spreading the touches to four receivers and two running backs. The Cougars moved about 60 yards in 11 plays, setting up a 40-yard field goal from All-Pac-12 kicker Dean Janikowski as time expired.

Ward led a spotless, methodical scoring series on his second and last possession of the day. The Cougars marched 75 yards on five plays in just over a minute. Receivers Lincoln Victor and De’Zhaun Stribling turned short throws into big gains, and running back Nakia Watson took a sidearm, check-down pass about 15 yards to set up senior slotback Renard Bell’s 15-yard TD reception on a crossing pattern. Ward completed 14 of 15 passes for 98 yards before taking a seat.

“Cam, operating the two-minute drill – he’s a special one,” WSU head coach Jake Dickert said. “We’re going to utilize tempo. … Cam navigates it so well to keep the defense off-balance. It’s an element of the game that I’m excited we added to the program.

“To have those guys (the offensive line) keep Cam upright, to have big plays like that and go out there and score with confidence in a two-minute drill, it’s awesome.”

Dickert commended offensive coordinator Eric Morris’ play-calling – “getting the ball out quicker, on time in the screen game and utilizing the tempo,” he said. That took some of the pressure off WSU’s starting offensive line, an unproven group which faces a disadvantage against the Cougars’ well-established defensive front.

“That two-minute period, we had a good run in that,” said right tackle Jack Wilson, who’s been lining up with the first team throughout fall camp in place of injured starter Ma’ake Fifita. “The tempo was up. That’s how we want to do it and I think we executed it well.

“It catches the defense off-guard at times. They’re messing up with their alignment. It’s a lot of fun to play that way.”

The majority of WSU’s locked-in starters rested after two or three possessions, but the Cougars kept some of their first-team O-linemen on the field for a few extra drives to protect reserve QBs who are competing for the No. 2 spot. True freshman John Mateer got the most work of the three backups. He completed 10 of 15 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns with one interception across four drives.

Mateer has been the second QB to take the field in team drills over the past several practices, but Dickert said a backup “won’t be finalized until the first game.”

Redshirt freshman Xavier Ward finished 9 of 13 for 123 yards and two touchdowns with no picks in three possessions. True freshman walk-on Emmett Brown completed 8 of 10 attempts for 158 yards and a TD with no interceptions across three series.

The Cougars ran just over 70 plays – about 50 passes and 20 rushing attempts. WSU’s offense amassed 10 plays of over 15 yards.

“I was not happy with the defensive communication today,” Dickert said. “There are some things in the back end that we gotta make sure we clean up. There were too many explosive plays.”

Slotback Orion Peters – one of the team’s most improved players – led all receivers with 110 yards on six receptions. His day included a 62-yard breakaway reception and a 10-yard TD catch, both from Xavier Ward. Rising true freshman receiver Leyton Smithson snagged a 41-yard pass from Mateer and finished second to Peters with 56 yards on three receptions.

“There were a few guys we really had targeted – I wanted to see them with the ball in their hands,” Dickert said. “Leyton Smithson was one of them, and he made a big play down the sideline. Orion Peters was the other. We scripted him some (plays). We like his progress. Now, when the game is going fast – those are some things he can still grown on. He’s still a redshirt freshman.

“So, keeping it within that lens, I think the ceiling is still really high for Orion and I’m excited to grow his role as we go throughout the season, because he’ll be playing big-time minutes for us.”

Nineteen players caught passes.

Other notable receiving days: Tsion Nunnally, a second-team outside receiver, added an 18-yard TD against the Cougars’ reserve DBs; tight end Moon Ashby, and slots Josh Meredith and Tre Horton each grabbed long-range TDs versus other backups; Cole Pruett, a true frosh slotback , picked up a combined 55 yards on back-to-back receptions from Brown on the 14th and final series of the scrimmage, which featured deep reserves exclusively; Victor and Stribling combined for 52 yards and eight receptions in only two drives.

Five running backs saw action, but only one logged more than two carries. Jouvensly Bazil was given a chance to step into the spotlight after a quiet camp. He performed well, gaining 43 yards on 10 attempts. The fourth-year sophomore bounced outside for the longest run of the day, a 17-yarder.

True freshman Jaylen Jenkins shined last weekend during the first scrimmage. He seems poised to play a major role off the bench this season. Apparently, he’s shown coaches all they need to see. Jenkins played a handful of snaps with WSU’s starting offense and caught one pass, then rested on the sideline for the remainder of the day. Watson, the favorite to shoulder the workload at RB this season, participated in two series, rumbling for a 14-yard carry and adding two catches.

“I think Jaylen proved last week, and through the course of this camp, that we’re going to need him,” Dickert said. “We’re confident in and we know who Jaylen is, so it’s about getting other guys some opportunities to see if they can make the bus. … We’re really confident in Nakia and Jaylen, and we’ll get Djouvensky (Schlenbaker) back next week and have a good race for who else is going to be out there.”

Redshirt freshman walk-ons Kannon Katzer and Dylan Paine combined for 1 yard on three carries. The two had been alternating with the Cougars’ first team throughout the month.

Schlenbaker, a true frosh , is still recovering from an injury sustained during WSU’s mock game Aug. 13. Fifita, guard Brock Dieu and freshman tight end Andre Dollar also remain sidelined. Edge rusher Ron Stone Jr. and backup edge Raam Stevenson were held out of the mock game.

WSU’s secondary scrimmaged without several key pieces: starting cornerbacks Derrick Langford Jr. and Chau Smith-Wade, nickels Armani Marsh and Armauni Archie, and cornerback Javan Robinson.

Some of the defense’s miscommunications in the backfield could be chalked up to those absences, Dickert noted, pointing out that two contributors in the secondary are learning new roles.

Junior Sam Lockett III shared first-team reps at free safety with redshirt freshman Jaden Hicks, who came into fall camp as a backup strong safety but switched positions recently and entered the FS competition after a string of solid performances. Redshirt freshman Adrian Shepherd, who began camp as the Cougars’ No. 1 free safety, moved to strong safety last week and took second-team reps at that spot in the scrimmage – behind starter Jordan Lee, who played sparingly.

“We will name a starter (at free safety),” Dickert said. “But at the end of the day – between Lockett and Hicks and Shep and J-Lee – those are four guys that are going to be playing meaningful downs all year.”

Two rotational edge rushers combined for three sacks. The Cougars totaled four tackles for loss in the ground game and one takeaway – junior cornerback Cam Lampkin picked off Mateer. Redshirt freshman edge Lawrence Falatea had two sacks. Sophomore edge Quinn Roff sped past Wilson and registered a touch sack on Mateer for a safety. WSU’s deep D-line mostly plugged the gaps, holding the offense to approximately 3.7 yards per rushing attempt.

Janikowski went 4 for 5 on field-goal attempts with a long of 40. He pushed a 35-yard try wide right for his first miss throughout every team drill in fall camp.

Scouts representing the Jacksonville Jaguars and San Francisco 49ers attended the scrimmage. Over the past three weeks of practice, 22 of 32 NFL teams have sent scouts to Pullman.

WSU moved the start time for its scrimmage ahead by 90 minutes so the Cougars’ players and coaches could participate in the National Lentil Festival parade in downtown Pullman.

Three big plays

1. The most productive player of the day, Peters produced the most explosive play of the scrimmage. The speedy slotback torched his defender off the snap and flew straight upfield on a vertical route near the far sideline. Brown, who had just entered at QB, led the receiver with a quality deep ball. Peters caught it in stride and picked up an extra 25 yards before a safety shoved him out of bounds at the 4-yard line. Peters finished with 110 receiving yards on the day – 62 on that play.

2. Ashby raced out of the backfield and bolted down the left sideline on a first-down passing play. He was left completely uncovered. Xavier Ward spotted the wide-open Ashby striding about 20 yards downfield and delivered a rainbow pass in his direction. The ball hung in the air as Ashby adjusted his route to get under it. A former edge-rusher who was flipped to tight end this offseason, Ashby showed off his hands and range as a receiver. He made a fingertip grab, reeling in an over-the-shoulder pass that was nearly uncatchable. Ashby maintained his pace as he tucked the ball away and sprinted the final distance to complete a 37-yard TD play. Players on the sideline let out a booming “Moon” chant, which echoed through the stadium. Ashby was the only TE to record a catch. Dickert named the redshirt freshman offensive player of the day after the scrimmage.

3. Mateer, starting from his own 1-yard line on his second possession, sparked the offense with a 41-yard completion to Smithson. On the next snap, WSU’s defense countered with a takeaway. Mateer lobbed a throw about 25 yards toward the far sideline, intended for Zeriah Beason. Lampkin played tight coverage while keeping an eye on the incoming pass. The Utah State transfer positioned himself in front of the receiver and went up to snatch the slightly underthrown ball. Lampkin, who started in place of Smith-Wade, has established himself in WSU’s CB rotation.

Their words

“I’d just say it’s very dynamic. (Defensive coordinator Brian Ward) always says in the film room that he loves going against our (offense) because they’re so dynamic and they give us so many different looks. It’s super nice as a defense to see all those looks. It helps us continue to grow.” – WSU freshman linebacker Hudson Cedarland on the challenges that come with defending against WSU’s Air Raid offense.