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2022 football preview: New frontman Cameron Ward brings an up-tempo rhythm in Jake Dickert’s first full season at Washington State

Quarterback Cameron Ward will lead a new-version of the Air Raid offense for the Washington State Cougars.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review; Staff photo illustration)

And so begins the Jake Dickert era at Washington State.

For real, this time.

The Cougs played well under Dickert for the final six games of the 2021 season, after coach Nick Rolovich was dismissed for failing to comply with a state COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Yet Dickert’s seventh game at the helm – 6:30 p.m. Saturday versus Idaho – will signal the proper start to his head-coaching career at WSU.

He’ll be joined on the sidelines by the staff he assembled this offseason – eight new assistants, including two coordinators. WSU will debut its revamped version of the Air Raid offense. Several prized additions from Dickert’s first recruiting class will play starring roles.

It will be the team Dickert shaped, not the team he inherited.

Of course, many familiar faces are back from WSU’s 2021 roster, a group of players that handled last season’s turmoil with grace and came up one game shy of a Pac-12 championship berth. The Cougs had to replace 11 starters, but they return a strong core of leadership – especially on defense – and a handful of potential standouts who played behind established veterans last year.

WSU won a few important recruiting battles for coveted transfers this offseason. No Cougar player has attracted more public interest than the headliner of the 2022 class, quarterback Cameron Ward.

Side A (offense): The Cougs are counting on Ward to operate the Air Raid efficiently and live up to his ever-building expectations of stardom. He was a highly touted signal-caller coming out of FCS Incarnate Word – where he dazzled over the past two seasons under coach Eric Morris, who is now coordinating WSU’s offense.

This preseason, Ward looked the part, exhibiting the uncommon skill set that had made him one of the top-rated transfer players of this recruiting cycle. He has “elite pocket presence,” Dickert noted, plus mobility and the arm strength and precision to make any throw – even when he’s firing from off-balance footing.

“I was really amazed with his arm and I think everyone talks about his arm, but I don’t think people talk enough about his leadership,” slot receiver Lincoln Victor said.

Ward will be surrounded by a deep and talented group of pass-catchers, captained by Victor and seventh-year senior slotback Renard Bell, and including returning starters on the outsides in De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie.

“It’s the best receiving corps I’ve been with,” Bell said.

WSU reloaded fast after losing its two leading receivers from last season in Calvin Jackson Jr. and Travell Harris.

Nakia Watson will shoulder running back duties after sitting last year behind the senior duo of Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh. But the Cougars will take a “by-committee” approach on the ground and play three or more tailbacks. Watson, a 500-yard rusher at Wisconsin between 2019-20, is the only Coug RB with game reps.

The key for WSU’s offense will be keeping Ward clean. The Cougs’ offensive line is unproven after being remade this offseason following several departures.

The Air Raid has returned to Pullman, but it will only partially resemble the system former coach Mike Leach employed from 2012-19. Although WSU’s new offense will lean on the passing game, it boasts the ability to ground and pound. Expect the Cougars to operate at a quick pace and send out a variety of formations – from five-wide sets to “bunch” formations with two tight ends.

“It’s a diverse offense,” linebacker Travion Brown said. “They’ve got a lot of stuff going on. It’s really good for the defense because it gives us a lot of looks.”

Side B (defense): The Cougs are staying mostly consistent with their defensive approach and building upon the foundation Dickert set as defensive coordinator over the past two years.

WSU’s new DC, Brian Ward, shares coaching philosophies and strategy with Dickert.

“Brian Ward has a very similar scheme – same philosophy,” edge-rusher Brennan Jackson said. “There’s still a big emphasis on turning the ball over, being ballhawks and just sprinting to the ball – 100% effort, every play.”

The Cougars played a resilient, swarming style of defense in 2021 and finished the season fifth nationally in takeaways (29).

WSU’s defense is paced by the edge-rushers, a deep and disruptive group that brings back all-conference stalwarts/team captains in Jackson and Ron Stone Jr. WSU is fortified up front with an ultra-experienced rotation of tackles.

“You can’t take off days when you play against this type of defense,” Cameron Ward said.

The Cougs landed a professional-caliber recruit this offseason in senior Nevada transfer Daiyan Henley, an outside linebacker who quickly distinguished himself as one of the team’s top pound-for-pound players. He’ll pair with co-starters Brown and Francisco Mauigoa to form an athletic linebacking corps that shouldn’t take a step back despite graduating longtime starters Jahad Woods and Justus Rogers.

Nickel Armani Marsh, a Spokane native, reprises his role as captain of the WSU secondary, which lost both of its starting safeties and its lockdown corner – Jaylen Watson, now with the Kansas City Chiefs. The Cougs gained an impact transfer to take the job at strong safety in senior Jordan Lee. Otherwise, WSU isn’t blessed with experience at the safety spots.

The cornerbacks might lack star power, but the group is fairly tested and has four reliable pieces. The primary question for WSU’s CBs: Can senior Derrick Langford Jr. replace Watson effectively and blanket the Pac-12’s best receivers?

Extras (special teams): The Cougs have few concerns – if any – regarding their kicking and punting units.

Dean Janikowski emerged last season as the Pac-12’s most accurate placekicker and claimed first-team all-conference honors. Australian punter Nick Haberer impressed in his first season playing American football and took home freshman All-America honors.

WSU should be effective in the return game with two of its most electric offensive playmakers – Victor and Bell – catching kicks and punts.

Surprise hits: Two dynamic young skill players had breakout performances this preseason and both are expected to contribute significantly off the bench in 2022.

True freshman tailback Jaylen Jenkins wowed onlookers throughout fall camp with his elusive running style and exceptional top-end speed. He offers a change of pace for a running back group that will be spearheaded by a power-centric ball-carrier in Nakia Watson.

Receiver Orion Peters, a second-year freshman, established himself as WSU’s No. 3 option at slotback early this preseason. Peters made sharp cuts to shake off defensive backs and came up with plenty of highlight-reel sideline receptions this preseason to secure a key rotational role in WSU’s pass-heavy offense.

Producer: A first-time head coach, Dickert earned his title through both chance and merit.

He led a defensive resurgence as a WSU coordinator in 2021. When a uniquely odd situation left the Cougars coachless at midseason, Dickert seemed like the best choice to steer the ship on an acting basis.

Dickert proved himself as a unifying presence, pulling the fractured team together and guiding it to a winning season and a rare Apple Cup triumph. His interim tag was removed in late November. It wasn’t how he imagined, but Dickert had become a head coach after 15 years climbing the occupational ladder.

After an encouraging offseason of program-building, Dickert is all set to debut his remade team, the “New Wazzu,” he calls it.

Album review: The Cougars have the makeup of a winning team, so we’re comfortable predicting an above-.500 finish and a bowl berth. We’re going to stay conservative with our estimate, considering the uncertainties that come with a first-year staff, a freshly installed offensive system and several new faces occupying key roles on the field. WSU certainly has the potential to outperform our record prediction. But let’s not get too carried away before we see the “New Wazzu” in action.

Prediction: 7-5