PULLMAN – Jake Dickert expects several position battles to proceed well into the season, but the Washington State coach has identified a few favorites ahead of the Cougars’ season-opening matchup with Idaho.
WSU’s first depth chart of the year, released Monday evening, didn’t clear up any questions regarding multiple contested positions – including backup running back, second-string quarterback and tight end.
Three freshmen were listed as co-backups at running back behind Nakia Watson. Two freshmen were slotted as co-backups at QB behind Cameron Ward. Four tight ends shared the first-string spot atop the depth chart.
On Tuesday, Dickert offered some clarity.
Jaylen Jenkins, a true freshman from Texas, seems to have the inside track on second-team duties at tailback. John Mateer, another true freshman from Texas, is in the lead for the No. 2 QB job. Billy Riviere, a transfer from the University of North Dakota, will probably be the first tight end to take the field this season – and the first Cougar TE to take the field in over a decade.
The Cougars plan to take a “by-committee” approach to the ground game this year, Dickert often says. Watson, the only WSU RB with game experience, is the unquestioned starter. But Jenkins emerged fast at fall camp as a speedier option and big-play threat at tailback.
“Nakia obviously has the veteran leadership and a little bit more of the experience,” Dickert said last week. “I think he’s the clear-cut No. 1, and I think Jaylen has done a really good job of being a ‘1B.’ They’re vastly different.”
Three other running backs split reserve reps – and got some work with WSU’s first team – during fall camp: Djouvensky Schlenbaker, Kannon Katzer and Dylan Paine. Paine’s name was left off WSU’s depth chart.
Dickert noted that playing time will be up for grabs throughout the season for the backup RBs and TEs, but the Cougars are coming into their opener with a pretty good idea of who will take the bulk of the reps at those spots.
“Those positions will be decided on Saturdays,” Dickert said. “There will be some workloads. Nakia and Jaylen will get a lot of that workload, and Billy Riviere has really proven himself as a staple that we can use.”
The best blocker of the group, Riviere entered the preseason as the front-runner at TE and played more snaps with the first unit at fall camp than his three other “co-starters” on WSU’s depth chart: Cameron Johnson, Andre Dollar and Moon Ashby.
“Moon and Cam and Andre, some of those guys, you’ll see them rotating in at times,” Dickert said.
The Cougars built their tight ends room from scratch this offseason. The position group did not exist at WSU, but it was reintroduced earlier this year when the program hired Eric Morris to install and coordinate a balanced version of the Air Raid offense, which includes TEs in some formations.
Mateer and redshirt freshman Xavier Ward have emerged as WSU’s two most reliable backups at QB. True freshman Emmett Brown was in the mix during fall camp, but has since fallen out of the race.
Mateer has a “slight edge right now,” Dickert said.
“But we’ll see how the games go. Hopefully, we get a chance to get those guys work as we go throughout the season, but John has progressed at a high rate and it’s exciting for him. If we ever get to that point where we need a backup guy to really play, you’ll probably see both of them (Mateer and Xavier Ward).”
Co-starters at free safety, middle linebacker?
Spokane native Sam Lockett III and Jaden Hicks have been competing for the free safety job over the past few weeks.
According to the Cougars’ depth chart, the start will go to Lockett “or” Hicks when WSU opens at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at home against the Vandals.
Lockett held down first-team responsibilities for the last week of fall camp.
“I think Sam has really taken a strong hold, really taken steps to be out there,” Dickert said last week. “Once again, someone will go out (first), but at the end of the day, that will be a position … that is going to be earned on the field.”
Jordan Lee is settled atop the depth chart at strong safety. Adrian Shepherd, who lined up with WSU’s starters at free safety earlier this preseason, is Lee’s backup.
The four safeties will all see steady action this season, Dickert said.
There has been little separation – if any – between middle linebackers Francisco Mauigoa and Travion Brown this preseason. It seems likely that the two will play equally significant roles.
“They’ll be used early and often,” Dickert said.
The Cougars operate a 4-2-5 base defense, but Dickert said they might send out three linebackers in some packages “to get our best guys out there” – Mauigoa, Brown and outside linebacker Daiyan Henley.
“Be ready to see (Mauigoa) playing multiple spots to be versatile,” Dickert said. “Like those safety positions, we need all those guys and they’ll play massive reps for us.”
Depth chart extras
The Cougars will employ healthy rotations on the defensive line and at the receiver positions. Six edge rushers and five defensive tackles are listed on the depth chart, which features five outside receivers and four slotbacks.
“We feel very comfortable with all those guys playing and rotating and you’re going to see them a decent amount, especially at wide receiver,” Dickert said. “Some of those things, we’ll trim over time – with injuries and guys earning those spots. At defensive tackle, we’re just really happy with the depth we’ve created.”
Slots Lincoln Victor and Renard Bell are penciled in as WSU’s top choices to return punts and kicks. Reserve slot Drake Owen could be put to work on punt returns, as well.
Seven true freshmen made the cut: Jenkins, Schlenbaker, Mateer, Dollar, receiver Leyton Smithson, cornerback Javan Robinson and backup long snapper Luca Rodarte. Smithson is the third-string “Z” outside receiver. Robinson is the Cougars’ No. 5 cornerback.
Only one of WSU’s backup offensive linemen – left guard Brock Dieu – has collegiate experience on the O-line.
Last week, Christian Hilborn was named the starter at left guard following a lengthy position battle to decide the final first-teamer on WSU’s O-line. It was gratifying for Dickert when he locked in Hilborn at the top of the depth chart.
“We’ve talked about his mentality, his makeup, his work ethic, and I think he’s responded to every challenge we’ve provided him,” Dickert said. “For him to solidify himself at left guard was a good moment for our program, and one we needed.”