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2022 football preview: Washington State counting on transfers Cameron Ward, Daiyan Henley to deliver big numbers

Two high-profile transfers, quarterback Cameron Ward, left, and linebacker Daiyan Henley, bring talent, leadership and excitement to Washington State this season.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Cameron Ward understands that the attention “comes with the territory.”

He’s a high-profile transfer quarterback who will lead Washington State’s new offense – a pass-heavy Air Raid system – this season under a first-year coaching staff.

So, Ward isn’t surprised by all the public interest surrounding him. It’s part of the job.

“I think I’ve handled it well, but at the end of the day, I don’t really believe in pressure,” Ward said recently. “It’s football. I’ve been doing it since I was 8 years old. I’ll just take it one snap at a time and whatever happens, happens. I know it’s in God’s plan for me.”

The hype began to build when Ward signed with WSU in January as a prized recruit out of Incarnate Word. The expectations have only grown since.

He seems to be taking it all in stride.

“Cam loves it. He’s born for it,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said earlier this month. “I really believe that, when you get around him a lot and you really get a chance to sit down and talk to him, he lives for the moment.”

WSU retained a strong nucleus of veteran players from last year’s squad, but the Cougars made several significant additions via the transfer portal this offseason as they reshaped their program and laid the foundation for the Dickert era. WSU signed 10 immediate-impact transfers, a haul headlined by a pair of potential superstars in Ward and senior linebacker Daiyan Henley, a former Nevada standout.

“I realize that I’m walking into something that’s already built, and it’s an honor to be a part of it,” Henley said. “I’m walking into a great culture. There are guys in the locker room that are already leaders and faces of the team, and they welcomed me into the union, ‘We know you’re going to be needed. You’re an older guy and we need you to be a senior leader.’ ”

WSU’s two most touted transfer players are relishing the opportunity to assume key roles for their new team and to prove themselves on a national stage. Ward and Henley sat down with The Spokesman-Review last week to share their thoughts on becoming first-time Cougar leaders at a notable juncture in the program’s history, ahead of a highly anticipated season.

“I tend to push all of that to the side,” Ward said when asked about the magnitude of this moment in his career. “I stick to my job, which is to go to school and play football for coach Dickert. Him bringing me here in January and giving me the keys to the kingdom, it just showed me a lot about how much he believes in me and trusts me to operate this system. The team feels that way about me and I trust the team. I feel like we’re going to be one of the best teams in the country by the end of the season.”

Ward, a third-year sophomore, produced staggering stat totals over the past two seasons while steering the Air Raid at Incarnate Word under coach Eric Morris – now the Cougars’ offensive coordinator. Ward raked in All-FCS honors, then became one of the most valuable transfer QBs on the market after experts started noticing his uncommon passing abilities. He essentially clinched WSU’s starting job on arrival. His physical tools were instantly impressive. Ward eased himself into a leadership role among his new teammates.

“I had to approach it a different type of way, coming in with coach Morris and with everything that had happened, with their head coach getting fired and all that,” he said, referencing Nick Rolovich’s dismissal in October over his failure to comply with a state COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

“I approached it the way I needed to. It’s worked out for myself and for the team. The team knows me now and they trust me to get our offense in the best situations to win games.”

Beginning before spring camp, Ward guided offseason exercises with the Cougs’ offense to expedite the installation process of the Air Raid. His on-field leadership qualities have grown tremendously over the past month, according to his coach.

“How he carries himself, how he understands that his voice matters in everything he does – we’re just seeing him take those steps,” Dickert said. “How you run off the field matters, especially when you’re a leader and have that many eyeballs on you. I’ve been happy with his development, and he doesn’t make excuses. He takes a lot of ownership. He expects to play at a high level and he holds himself to that every day.”

Ward describes himself as “level-headed” and “a humble dude” – good traits to have for someone in the spotlight. The Cougs’ fan base has been discussing his prospects all year while eagerly awaiting his debut. Fellow students recognize him on campus. His name has come up a few times among national media members as a “breakout FBS star” candidate. Ward was named recently to the watch list for the Maxwell Award, given annually to the best all-around player in college football. Of course, he’s heard the chatter.

“I see some of the stuff on social media. My friends always send me things,” Ward said. “At the end of the day, you still gotta prove it on the field.”

Teammates sometimes tease Ward for his semi-celebrity status.

“I’ll be walking around campus and they’ll see me and be like, ‘Whoa, that’s Cam Ward!’

“I’m like, ‘Chill,’ ” Ward said, chuckling. “They always got their jokes with me. They know I don’t really like it like that. I’m a low-key dude. It comes with the territory, but I’m always going to be humble and feel blessed to be here.”

After an offseason of rising expectations, Ward will finally have a chance to show his potential when he makes his major college football debut at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at home against Idaho.

“My first time being able to play with more than 3,000 fans, playing in a packed stadium, especially in a town like Pullman – a town that just loves their football – it’s a blessing,” Ward said. “I wanted to play at a Power Five school coming out of high school, but I had to take my own route.

“Everything happens for a reason and I know I was put here for a reason. I’m ready.”

Henley is poised to make a splash this year in his first and only season with WSU. He spent the past five years at Nevada – first as a receiver/return man, then as a defensive back before transitioning to outside linebacker fulltime in 2020. Henley exhibited a high motor and hard-hitting abilities in a dynamic skill set last year and earned All-Mountain West honors as the Wolf Pack’s defensive ace.

He was one of the top-rated defensive transfer players in the 2022 recruiting cycle. Henley passed up several high-level offers and chose to follow Brian Ward – WSU’s first-year defensive coordinator and the former DC at Nevada – to Pullman.

“You’re always a little bit unsure about someone who’s new, but they knew I was a player and I appreciate them for accepting me,” he said. “There’s always doubt that comes with transfers. So, the first thing on my mind when I got here was to prove myself and earn their trust. … The biggest thing for me was being genuine, being myself and not letting the outside noise corrupt who I am as a person. I think the guys could see that I’m 100% genuine.

“It’s not something that’s easy to do, jumping into a new group of guys and thinking they’ll trust you. Coming into this season, I feel like I’ve earned their trust and they believe in me.”

Henley gained respect quickly among his new teammates for his deft play and deep knowledge of the game. He fit in “seamlessly on the field,” considering that he’s “coming into a defense I already know.”

Clearly, Henley passes the eye test. Without question, he’s one of the team’s most talented players – that became apparent during spring ball, and it was obvious throughout fall camp. Henley should be a major playmaker this season for WSU and will make a fine replacement for Jahad Woods, who graduated after starting at outside LB for five years. Henley landed on the watch list recently for the Butkus Award, presented annually to college football’s top linebacker.

“Having the opportunity to be a so-called ‘face’ of the team and whatnot, it’s an honor,” Henley said. “It’s not taken lightly. I appreciate that regard. It matters, but it’s not my focus. I just want to be a part of the team and provide my contribution.

“I have a high regard for them. If I wasn’t the right guy, they wouldn’t have chosen me … accepting me to talk. I feel like they listen to me now, more times than not. They fact that they do it all shows there’s love and respect for me and I love and respect them just as much.”

Henley “took it to heart” when coaches asked him to share leadership responsibilities with a host of proven returners in WSU’s defensive front. His exuberant personality and high-energy playing style mix nicely with the spirited character of the Cougs’ defense, which returns a corps of vets that spearheaded a breakthrough campaign for the unit in 2021.

“It isn’t something I had to help build,” he said. “That’s why I can’t completely agree with me being a ‘face’ of the team and all that. This was a unit that was already built. I got to witness it last year. They rallied after everything they went through, beat the rivals up there – we don’t talk about those guys – and made it to a bowl game. I saw them battle.

“I’m another puzzle piece.”

After relocating and joining a new program in what he calls “the longest offseason I’ve ever had,” Henley is anxiously awaiting Saturday night.

“All the anticipation, the transfer, and just understanding my new team and getting to become brothers with these guys … for me, this is big,” he said. “I get a new feeling, a new vibe. I get to play with some guys that I have really, really wanted to play with.”