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Quarterback and offensive line among top questions for Washington State’s offense to answer this offseason

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – A new quarterback will be operating a new system. That’s the trending topic surrounding Washington State’s 2022 offense.

The Cougars overhauled their offensive staff and are installing a variation of the Air Raid offense, which will be run by a transfer QB with intriguing potential.

WSU football has entered a new era, and its fan base is wondering how it’ll turn out.

Other offseason questions revolving around the Cougars’ offense concern its rebuild on the line and who will step up among its non-QB skill players.

Just how good is Cameron Ward?

College football pundits think he’s a special talent, capable of guiding WSU into contention for a Pac-12 North crown. Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin even called the quarterback a future first-round pick in the NFL draft, according to a recent story published by The Athletic.

By all indications, the Cougars set themselves up for success when they signed Ward, a four-star transfer out of FCS Incarnate Word who considers to be a top-five transfer QB of this recruiting cycle. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound sophomore chose WSU over Ole Miss last month, delighting a Cougars fan base that expects Ward to capture starting duties quickly and become a star in this conference.

The million-dollar question: Will he live up to the hype?

Most are wagering yes.

Ward was easily a top-three quarterback in the FCS a year ago when he completed 65% of his passes for 4,648 yards and fired an FCS-best 47 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. He ranked near the top of the classification in every passing stat category in steering UIW to a 10-win season and Southland Conference championship under fourth-year coach Eric Morris – the Cougars’ new offensive coordinator.

Ward sparkled last season in a balanced version of the Air Raid, a system Morris is installing at WSU. The Texan is already ahead of schedule in his understanding of WSU’s offense.

In terms of his physical attributes, Ward boasts a strong arm, a quick release and sneaky athleticism. He’s composed in the pocket and has a knack for sliding away from pressure while keeping his eyes downfield.

He enrolled at WSU for this semester, and Cougar enthusiasts will get a preview of his abilities when spring camp rolls around.

They believe in Ward, but it doesn’t mean they’re not crossing their fingers. WSU’s QB options behind him are limited, and the team essentially swapped out a two-year Pac-12 starter in Jayden de Laura for Ward, who’s never been tested at this level of play.

De Laura transferred to the University of Arizona earlier this month, announcing his commitment to the Wildcats on the same day Ward signed with the Cougars.

Will the Cougars reload quickly on offensive line?

It’s the position group WSU fans seem to be most concerned about.

And for good reason – the Cougars need help up front immediately if they hope to keep Ward upright.

Among four departures, the program is losing 101 starts’ worth of experience from its O-line.

Its two pillars at tackle, Abraham Lucas and Liam Ryan, combined for 84 of them across four years. Lucas is off to the pro ranks while Ryan has completed his collegiate eligibility.

Senior center/guard Brian Greene transferred out of the program recently after two years as a regular in the lineup. He missed a handful of games in 2021 because of an early season injury and a personal matter late. The Cougars were clearly more effective in the trenches with Greene available.

Cade Beresford, a junior co-starter at right guard throughout the season, transferred to Boise State last month.

That leaves WSU with three returners who have played meaningful snaps at the college level.

Sophomore Ma’ake Fifita, the other right guard, broke out early this season and steadily improved as the year progressed.

Junior Jarrett Kingston held down the left guard spot all season, but he might be shifted to tackle in 2022, according to coach Jake Dickert. Kingston filled in at left tackle during the Sun Bowl, a 24-21 loss to Central Michigan in which WSU’s O-line stumbled without Ryan (injury) and Lucas (opt-out).

Sophomore Konner Gomness played center for over half of the year and had mixed results in his debut season on offense.

Nonetheless, the Cougars should be settled on their left tackle, center and right guard going forward.

Otherwise, it’s anyone’s guess.

Freshman Christian Hilborn was a fall camp darling, but struggled mightily when thrust into action in relief of Lucas at the Sun Bowl. After the first quarter, Hilborn got benched. Fellow rookie Brock Dieu performed admirably at guard in his first career appearance in El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 31.

No other O-linemen on WSU’s roster have seen the field on offense.

Are Hilborn and Dieu the favorites to slide into starting roles in 2022? Probably not. It’s hard to imagine that either has proven enough.

More likely, the Cougars will pluck a couple of seasoned players out of the transfer portal.

They have a few offers out to Group of Five prospects. They’ll find out Wednesday on national signing day whether they have secured any plug-and-play transfers.

WSU has already added five offensive tackles to its 2022 recruiting class, but they’re all prep recruits and presumably won’t be ready to play this season.

The Cougars allowed 15 sacks in their first four games this season before their O-line steadied out, permitting 16 the rest of the way – six in the Sun Bowl. WSU also made strides in the ground game as the year wore on, compiling over 150 rushing yards in three of its last five games, but now it’s back to the drawing board.

Is WSU comfortable with its skill players?

At receiver, the Cougars are confident in their returning nucleus.

At running back, they have high expectations for their new starter.

At tight end, they’re figuring things out.

Explosive slotbacks Calvin Jackson Jr. and Travell Harris wrapped up their WSU careers after combining for more than half of the team’s receiving production last season, totaling 1,801 yards and 16 touchdowns on 142 catches.

WSU lost its top two receiving targets – two of the Pac-12’s top receivers – but it has pass-catching reinforcements aplenty.

The Cougars bring back their two starting outside receivers in De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie. Stribling topped all freshmen in the Pac-12 with 471 yards, five TDs and 44 catches in 2021. Ollie will be expected to raise his game this season after managing just 301 yards and one score (in Week 1) on 26 catches during his sophomore year. He came along later in the season, totaling 140 yards on nine catches over the final two games.

The real difference maker at receiver might be someone who didn’t play last season. Renard Bell is back for his fifth year after sustaining a season-ending ACL injury ahead of the 2021 campaign. He has amassed 1,656 yards and 16 TDs on 147 receptions across 43 games in crimson and gray.

Slots Lincoln Victor and Joey Hobert flashed in reserve roles last year – Victor especially. The junior Hawaii transfer shined in the Sun Bowl and gave onlookers a tease of his big-play potential on a few occasions earlier in the season, which he finished with 296 yards and two scores. Hobert, a sure-handed sophomore, contributed 192 yards, including a 55-yard catch-and-run for a TD versus Oregon State in October.

Dickert indicated last month that WSU might explore the portal for another WR to bolster its depth. He’s also acknowledged that it might not be necessary, considering the program’s deep pool of young pass catchers.

Redshirts like Orion Peters and Tsion Nunnally turned heads during practice sessions throughout 2021.

The Cougars will be promoting a running back, too.

Junior Nakia Watson is moving up the depth chart after spending most of last season on the sideline, watching as veterans Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh rotated in WSU’s backfield.

Watson, a former key reserve at Wisconsin from 2019-20, rushed for only 114 yards on 36 carries and didn’t score. He had piled up 522 yards and five TDs as a Badger.

Watson made his first start in the Sun Bowl because Borghi opted out and McIntosh missed the trip for unspecified reasons.

Dickert seems to be all in on Watson as WSU’s starter in ’22. The Cougar faithful still need to be convinced. At no point in a game this year did the 6-foot, 230-pounder firmly establish himself as the heir apparent to Borghi/McIntosh.

Watson is the team’s only RB with significant game experience. The Cougars signed a promising prep prospect from Bellingham in Djouvensky Schlenbaker last month and on Saturday received a commitment from Jaylen Jenkins, out of prep powerhouse Allen (Texas). Expect them to further augment their RB room on national signing day.

Morris is reintroducing tight ends at WSU, which hasn’t employed the position since the pre-Mike Leach era. Signing at least one more TE – preferably, an experienced one – feels like a must.

The Cougars have two of them. Last month, they landed Andre Dollar, an athletic three-star prep recruit from Oklahoma who flipped from Oregon to become WSU’s first TE signee in over a decade. Billy Riviere, a sophomore transfer from FCS North Dakota who was used primarily as a blocker, recently told that he’d be walking on at the Pullman school.

Dickert hinted that at least one Cougar player will be converted to TE.

How dynamic is Eric Morris’ Air Raid?

It sounds like the new offense will be multidimensional and balanced. The way Dickert describes it, it’s tough not to look forward to seeing the system in operation.

Dickert detailed the offense to reporters last month. He promised versatility. The “Coug Raid,” as he called it, will feature bootlegs, lots of play action and misdirections. UIW’s film from 2021 shows passing schemes similar to those used by WSU during Leach’s tenure, but there appears to be more room for improvisation in Morris’ variation of the offense. There’s also a healthy usage of motions and, of course, tight ends are often on the field.

Unlike Leach’s Air Raid and former coach Nick Rolovich’s run-and-shoot, “Coug Raid” formations usually include two wideouts, one slotback and a tight end.

UIW enjoyed a top-five scoring offense and passing offense, and the No. 6 total offense, in the FCS last season. The Cardinals went to the air on 62.5% of their plays.

Their top two backs, Kevin Brown and Marcus Cooper, registered respectable rushing totals of 956 yards and 580, respectively, and tallied 20 TDs on the ground.

In comparison, Borghi and McIntosh ran for 880 and 532 yards and scored 15 times. WSU called passing plays on 52.8% of its snaps.

Since taking the helm after Rolovich’s termination in mid-October, Dickert has emphasized the importance of the run game – it softens up the defense and opens up the passing game.