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Five position battles to watch as Washington State ramps up for its season opener

Washington State’s Jaylen Jenkins, right, carries the ball as Sam Lockett III closes in on Aug. 9 in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – With less than two weeks until kickoff, several spots on Washington State’s depth chart are still up for grabs.

What follows are brief overviews on five position battles to watch ahead of the Cougars’ season opener Sept. 3 against Idaho.

Left guard

Current favorite: Fa’alili Fa’amoe

Also in the mix: Christian Hilborn, Brock Dieu

Fa’amoe impressed coaches during WSU’s first preseason scrimmage Aug. 13, and the former defensive tackle has lined up with the Cougars’ No. 1 offensive line in every practice since.

Fa’amoe was a scout-team defensive lineman last year. The third-year freshman flipped to offensive tackle this offseason and spent the first two weeks of camp playing behind starting left tackle Jarrett Kingston. But the Cougars’ staffers liked what they saw when they gave Fa’amoe a trial run inside.

“Right now, he has really proven that he’s one of our five best athletes (at the offensive line positions), and he’s getting better and better every single day,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said last week of the 6-foot-5, 295-pound Fa’amoe.

Hilborn and Dieu, both of whom made their collegiate debuts as true freshmen last year in WSU’s season finale at the Sun Bowl, shared first-team reps at left guard throughout the first seven practices of fall camp. Dieu sustained an undisclosed injury in Week 2 and has been sidelined since Aug. 11.

“He’ll still be a little bit of a work in progress,” Dickert said of Dieu on Saturday.

Hilborn worked primarily with the Cougars’ second-team O-line over the past week, splitting time at left guard and left tackle.

“Don’t sleep on Christian Hilborn,” Dickert said Saturday after WSU’s second and final preseason scrimmage. “He’s had one heckuva camp. He’s in a really good place.”

Free safety

Current favorite: Sam Lockett III

Also in the mix: Jaden Hicks, Adrian Shepherd

Lockett, a Spokane native, shouldered first-team duties for most of the past week of practices and started in Saturday’s scrimmage.

Hicks, following a string of impressive camp performances and a strong effort in WSU’s first mock game on Aug. 13, has taken a fair amount of first-string reps recently, as well. Hicks entered camp as the backup to strong safety Jordan Lee but has been cross training at both positions.

Adrian Shepherd was the Cougars’ first free safety on the field in full-team drills for the first nine days of fall camp before being replaced by Lockett. Shepherd is now lining up primarily as WSU’s second-team strong safety, but coaches are still getting him some looks at free safety.

All four safeties will play substantial minutes this season – Dickert has made that clear on multiple occasions this month. He indicated that it might be a 50/50 split at free safety.

“We will name a starter. Someone will come out (first) in the first game,” he said. “I know everyone is infatuated with ‘starter,’ and I get it … but at the end of the day, it will be those four guys playing serious reps.”

Backup running back

Current favorite: Jaylen Jenkins

Also in the mix: Djouvensky Schlenbaker, Kannon Katzer, Dylan Paine

Jenkins emerged early in camp as a big-play threat out of the Cougars’ backfield. The true freshman dazzled in WSU’s first scrimmage, accelerating quickly through gaps in the line to break off several long runs.

“I think Jaylen proved last week and through the course of this camp that we’re going to need him,” Dickert said Saturday, after Jenkins played only a handful of snaps in the scrimmage and spent the rest of the morning spectating alongside WSU starters – an indication that he had shown the coaches all they needed to see.

Dickert wouldn’t confirm whether Jenkins has locked up the No. 2 job behind starter Nakia Watson. But the coach seems certain that Jenkins will have a playing role this season.

“We’re really confident in Nakia and Jaylen,” he said. “We’ll get Djouvensky back next week and have a good race for who else is going to be out there.”

Schlenbaker was WSU’s second-team tailback in spring ball and entered fall camp as the favorite to back up Watson. Schlenbaker’s power-running style proved effective early this preseason, but the rookie sustained an unspecified injury Aug. 13 and hasn’t practiced since. That opened the door for Jenkins, and walk-ons Katzer and Paine, both of whom have alternated with WSU’s first unit over the past two weeks.

Backup quarterback

Current favorite: John Mateer

Also in the mix: Xavier Ward, Emmett Brown

Since Day 1 of fall camp, three freshmen have been locked in a competition for the No. 2 QB job behind Cameron Ward.

There is no obvious choice here, but considering his rep counts over this past week and overall skill set, we’re going with Mateer for now. The 6-1, 205-pound true freshman from Texas appears to have an edge over his competitors in traits such as arm strength and timing on deep and intermediate routes. He is decently mobile and accurate outside the pocket.

Mateer took more snaps than Ward and Brown during Saturday’s scrimmage.

“John’s had a really good third week of camp,” Dickert said. “He really deserved the opportunity to go out and play with some more of those (starting) offensive linemen. … There’s still a lot to learn, coming in as a true freshman. To kind of pick up this offense, I think he’s done a good job.”

Brown seemed to be leading the competition for the first week of camp. The 5-10, 190-pound true freshman walk-on had a standout spring camp to push himself into the race. Xavier Ward, a 6-2, 205-pound redshirt freshman, was the top-rated recruit out of the three and might have the highest ceiling if he can become a more consistent passer.

“X has probably been the guy that continues, as we go through (the preseason), to get better and better,” Dickert said. “He’s got a live arm and he’s getting more comfortable with the offense.”

The Cougars’ No. 2 QB “won’t be finalized until the first game,” Dickert said. The Cougars will conduct competitive periods between the three this week, then “sort those guys out the following week,” Dickert added.

Middle linebacker

Current favorite: Francisco Mauigoa

Also in the mix: Travion Brown

Mauigoa played himself into contention for the starting job during spring ball, and the redshirt freshman has been the first middle linebacker to take the field with the Cougars’ top defensive unit throughout fall camp.

But Brown, who played a significant role off the bench last season, is also seeing steady time with WSU’s starting defense. He and Mauigoa sub in and out every few plays.

Perhaps that’ll be the case this season – Mauigoa and Brown essentially sharing starting responsibilities. The two have proven almost equally reliable options for a WSU defensive front that has been stellar all preseason.