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Washington State rewind: Looking ahead to Cougs’ offseason, looking back at 2022 season

PULLMAN – The season is over, but there’s no time to rest.

Washington State concluded its first full campaign under coach Jake Dickert with a 7-6 record after dropping a 29-6 decision against Fresno State on Saturday in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl. Now, Dickert turns his attention to another rebuilding project of sorts.

The Cougars are immediately launching into a crucial stretch of the offseason. The NCAA’s early signing period opens Wednesday. WSU must replace a significant chunk of its roster.

The Cougars are also searching for three new assistants.

Dickert had been looking forward to some down time for the holidays. Instead, his hands are full.

“Now I’ve got a bunch of work to do, hiring a bunch of coaches,” he said earlier this week, adding that the transfer portal “has ruined that off-time.

“It used to be, (after) the bowl game, ‘Hey guys, we’ll see you Jan. 13.’ No worries, no phone dialing, no nothing.”

WSU lost 13 players to graduation. Four other key contributors – starting receivers De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie, and linebackers Francisco Mauigoa and Travion Brown – transferred out of the program earlier this month.

Offensive coordinator Eric Morris left the team last week after one season at WSU to take the head coaching position at North Texas. Defensive coordinator Brian Ward said farewell to the Cougars early this month after one year with the program and accepted the same position at Arizona State. Third-year edge rushers coach A.J. Cooper is joining Ward at ASU.

Dickert told reporters this week that he plans to have his coordinators in place by Jan. 8. The Cougars won’t be introducing a fresh set of schemes on either side of the ball.

They’ll stick with the same defensive system Dickert installed in early 2020, then coordinated for two seasons before handing the reins off to Ward, who added some wrinkles but didn’t overhaul a 4-2-5 defense that had an impressive year in 2021. WSU was headlined by its defense again in 2022. The unit performed well in all but a couple of games this year.

The Cougars led the conference in scoring defense for five consecutive weeks late in the year, and sat in the upper tiers of the Pac-12 in most defensive stat categories, before a letdown against Washington. WSU finished the season with 33 sacks and 80 tackles for loss – both top-40 marks nationally.

“I think we’re just right there,” said All-Pac-12 edge rusher Brennan Jackson, a team captain who has already committed to return to WSU for his senior season. “I feel like we’re really close to getting over that hump that is really going to make us an elite defense.

“I think there’s a few things here and there that we can improve on. It’s going to be all bought-in from us as players and a coaching staff. That’s one thing I took away from the season … we’re so close and I’m really excited about what we’re going to do next year.”

Morris installed a new offense, an iteration of the Air Raid. Nicknamed the “Coug Raid,” the system was streaky at best in its debut season.

The offensive line gave up 46 sacks. WSU’s receivers were underwhelming despite high expectations surrounding the group before the season. The ground game opened up during a three-game winning streak late in the year against some of the Pac-12’s worst teams, but WSU struggled to establish an effective rushing attack and sat last in the conference in production for much of the season. Quarterback Cameron Ward showed flashes of a high ceiling mixed with stretches of questionable decision-making.

“I feel like it was a good season overall, for the first-year offense,” Ward said. “The biggest thing I learned as a quarterback in a Power Five is that every possession matters.”

The shorthanded Cougars managed just one productive possession on Saturday at SoFi Stadium and were outmatched by one of the best teams in the Group of Five. Fresno State (10-4) pulled away in the second half as WSU’s offense went stagnant and its defense wore out.

“It isn’t about one outcome,” Dickert said. “That’s the biggest thing I told the team after the game. I’m really proud of them. … We took over a program this year and had to establish a foundation. I’m proud of the foundation they started, because it’s something you can build on.”

It sounds like WSU will tweak its offense next season while retaining elements of the Air Raid. Dickert wants to see improvements in WSU’s downfield passing game, which was at times nonexistent in 2022.

“I’m definitely not going to call it a restart,” Dickert said after the game when asked about the coordinator search. “I think there are benefits that can be had when you get some new people in here, new coaches and you kinda take forward advances in our schematics. They are not going to be drastic changes. We’re going to find people that really operate in the framework of what we do.

“Wanting to be at Washington State is going to be really important. These guys need consistency.”

Dickert gestured to the two players sitting beside him at the postgame news conference – Jackson and Ward, a talented young transfer who spent the year finding his footing at the Power Five level.

“I’m excited about being here for the long term and building around two pieces of it, leaders who have put the stake in the ground and are excited about what we’re building in the future,” Dickert said. “It’s recruiting, it’s staff, it’s everything as we continue to go and grow in our program, and refuse to take steps backward. Only steps forward. That’s where we’re at right now, and we’re excited about building on a successful season.”

Season rewind

Dickert led the team to a seven-win season last year as interim coach, and after being lifted to the permanent job, he rebuilt the staff and signed several newcomers to assume leadership roles. The Cougars’ prospects looked good, but considering all the uncertainties that come with such a new-look program, it was probably unfair to expect a major improvement.

They had a shaky start, squeezing past FCS Idaho, but rebounded with a memorable victory. Dickert returned to his home state and tailback Nakia Watson returned to his former school, and WSU outmuscled a then-ranked Wisconsin team on the road 17-14 – the Cougars’ best win of the season, and their only FBS victory against a team with a .500 or winning record. The Badgers went 6-6.

WSU rolled past Colorado State, a Division I bottomfeeder, to improve to 3-0 and set up an exciting matchup against visiting Oregon.

During one of their sharpest offensive performances of the year, the Cougars led the Ducks for most of the game on Sept. 24 at Gesa Field, but crumbled down the stretch. WSU squandered a 12-point fourth-quarter lead and lost 44-41.

Following a well-rounded effort in a win over Cal, the Cougars stumbled to three consecutive losses against three of the Pac-12’s best teams.

WSU’s offense, plagued by injuries, laid an egg in the second half of a 30-14 defeat at USC – the Cougars’ defense performed well, holding Trojan QB and Heisman winner Caleb Williams in check, but USC took advantage of WSU’s offensive sluggishness and gradually separated.

Before their bye week, the Cougars looked deflated during a 24-10 loss at Oregon State. After its break, WSU missed an opportunity against Utah on Oct. 27. The Utes played with a backup QB. WSU’s offense played from behind the chains all night in the 21-17 loss.

WSU snapped its skid the following week at Stanford and took advantage of a softer late-season schedule, posting three straight wins. The Cougars dismantled the Cardinal 52-14. They took care of Arizona State 28-18 on Nov. 12, then made life miserable for their former quarterback, logging four interceptions against Arizona’s Jayden de Laura during a 31-20 victory in Tucson on Nov. 19. WSU’s offense started fast in those three games, but went quiet in the second halves. The Cougars’ defense stayed sharp enough to preserve big halftime leads.

Two surging rivals – WSU’s strong defense versus Washington’s high-powered offense – met in the Apple Cup on Nov. 26 in Pullman. The first half was well-matched, featuring plenty of explosive plays. The Cougars’ defense had no answers as the game progressed, surrendering over 700 yards in one of the program’s worst defensive performances, in terms of yardage allowed, of the past two decades. WSU’s offense couldn’t keep up, and the Cougars fell 51-33.

Each of the Cougars’ five Pac-12 losses came to teams that finished the regular season in the top 20 of the Associated Press’ national rankings.

“We lost to five really quality opponents and in those games, we had opportunities,” Dickert said Friday. “There’s things to build on and a lot of positives that came out of Year 1 of trying to establish a program and lay a foundation.”

The Cougars landed at seventh in the final Pac-12 standings. Their four conference wins came against teams that finished below them in the standings.

WSU received a tough draw for its postseason game and didn’t have the punch to compete with one of the country’s hottest teams in Fresno State, which won its ninth consecutive game to become the first team in FBS history to achieve 10 wins after starting its season 1-4.

“There are a lot of ‘learns’ from this season,” Dickert said Saturday. “The margins of victory in our league are so small and winning is hard, so I think we learned what it takes to do that. Now, we need to put together 60 minutes of football and we just haven’t quite gotten to that point this season and today was one of those days.”

Positional priorities

The position group that caused the most concern this season was without a doubt the offensive line. The Cougars finished the year ranked in the bottom five nationally in both sacks (46) and tackles for loss (98) allowed.

WSU will probably need to find an immediate-impact lineman or two in the transfer portal this offseason.

The Cougars lose tackle Jarrett Kingston and guard Grant Stephens to graduation. Kingston, the team’s most consistent linemen, missed the final four games of the year after suffering an injury Nov. 5 at Stanford.

Three starters are set to return. WSU has barely any dependable options behind them.

Along with Stribling and Ollie, the Cougars must replace senior slot receivers Renard Bell and Robert Ferrel. Bell missed five games this season due to an injury and finished his seven-year WSU career with nearly 2,000 yards. Ferrel, a transfer who spent one season at WSU, ended the year as the team’s No. 2 receiver. WSU probably needs to scour the portal for multiple plug-and-play pass-catchers. Right now, the Cougars are severely lacking in experience at the receiver positions. The team’s top four returning receivers combined for 637 yards and two TDs this season.

Crucial for WSU this offseason will be retaining and developing its players in the offensive backfield: Cameron Ward, and tailbacks Nakia Watson and Jaylen Jenkins. Watson was arguably WSU’s top offensive performer this year, totaling 1,064 yards and 13 touchdowns from scrimmage.

Barring any surprise departures, the Cougars should be set at those positions.

WSU’s defense loses a host of veteran pieces, including its three top linebackers, most of its depth at defensive tackle and a team captain in the secondary.

All-Pac-12 linebacker Daiyan Henley is off to the NFL. Standout nickel Armani Marsh and cornerback Derrick Langford Jr. are graduating after three seasons in the starting lineup. DTs Christian Mejia, Antonio Pule III and Amir Mujahid are gone, too. Nusi Malani, a rotational DT this year who logged two sacks, should capture a starting job next year.

The most encouraging news of the offseason so far: Jackson and fellow All-Pac-12 “edge” Ron Stone Jr. confirmed they will be back in 2023. WSU’s edge-rushing room is well-stocked for the future.

Two first-team safeties will presumably return, along with Chau Smith-Wade, who emerged as one of the Pac-12’s most proficient coverage cornerbacks this year.

Priorities for WSU’s defense: replenishing the linebacker room and finding a capable cornerback.