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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State notebook: Cougars employed deeper receiver rotation versus Stanford

Nov. 9, 2022 Updated Wed., Nov. 9, 2022 at 10 p.m.

WSU receivers Anderson Grover (26) and Donovan Ollie react during a game Saturday against Stanford. Grover had the first TD of his career in the game.  (WSU Athletics)
WSU receivers Anderson Grover (26) and Donovan Ollie react during a game Saturday against Stanford. Grover had the first TD of his career in the game. (WSU Athletics)

PULLMAN – To motivate an underperforming position group, Washington State coaches redistributed some reps.

The Cougars made tweaks to their wide receiver rotation during the bye week last month.

“We really looked hard in the mirror and kinda figured out what’s best to keep guys fresh and to keep a really competitive atmosphere in the room,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said Wednesday. “It was, ‘Hey, no one is performing at the level that deserves to just be out there all the time.’ That was the reality of it, so we challenged those guys.”

WSU’s starters at the receiver spots – Donovan Ollie and Leyton Smithson outside; De’Zhaun Stribling and Robert Ferrel in the slots – haven’t changed in the past three weeks, but a few backup receivers have seen their roles expand as the Cougars look to develop “competitive depth” within their pass-heavy Air Raid offense’s receiving corps, which experienced a rough patch of play for a few weeks in October.

“When you give some guys opportunities, they practice harder – they’re more focused,” Dickert said, “and I think the guys in front of them never get settled. So, that’s kinda where we land, and I’m just excited about getting a bunch of different guys some catches, some looks, some touches.”

Eight receivers took turns working with WSU’s first-team offense during the team’s 52-14 drubbing of Stanford on Saturday at Stanford Stadium.

Six of them made catches in the first half. The Cougars substituted a fresh set of receivers into the lineup more often than they had in previous games.

“There’s no reason for any of those guys to be comfortable, and that’s not a bad thing. It really isn’t,” Dickert said. “We need to have competitive depth throughout our whole team. That was kinda the mindset after that bye week, and we’re going to use it all the way through.”

Dickert estimated that WSU rotates its receivers every five or six plays. He’d like that number to be closer to seven or eight, so the Cougars’ up-tempo offense can settle into a rhythm.

Expect the Cougars (5-4, 2-4 Pac-12) to employ a healthy receiving rotation again when they host Arizona State at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

Firsts for several Cougar receivers

WSU called upon young reserve options early in the game. Freshman slotback Orion Peters snagged an 18-yard sideline catch on the Cougars’ second possession. On the next play, sophomore Anderson Grover recorded his first career touchdown – and second catch in a Cougar uniform.

“Opportunities are everything. You gotta be ready for those moments and he was,” Dickert said.

The 6-foot-3 Grover, lining up at the left slot position, darted upfield then cut left on a short out route. He hauled in a quick pass and dove for the pylon as he was pushed out of bounds, breaking the plane with the tip of the ball for a 7-yard touchdown.

“The last touchdown I scored was in 2019,” said Grover, who joined WSU ahead of the 2021 season after playing at Modesto Junior College in California. “It’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of hours put in. It felt really good to make a play, to make something productive in a game situation.”

Peters had a career day, finishing with 50 yards and his first collegiate TD on three catches.

Two of Peters’ receptions, including his 27-yard TD grab in the fourth quarter, came with the Cougars’ second-team offense, which entered the game early in the final quarter with the result already decided.

But Peters – along with backups Tsion Nunnally and Lincoln Victor – had also played steady minutes off the bench before the Cougars took their foot off the gas and sent in the second unit. Nunnally and Victor didn’t record any catches. Nunnally, a freshman, was targeted three times.

“I think that’s a huge key to having a successful room, knowing you got guys behind you and in front of you that are going to do their jobs and do what it takes for our offense to be successful,” Grover said. “It’s really helpful knowing I got Strib, I got Rob in front of me to learn from. … It helps knowing we got numbers and we got guys that can go out there and eat on any given Saturday.”

The four starters combined for 101 yards and two touchdowns on 12 touches.

Smithson, making his third career start Saturday, tallied his first career TD on WSU’s opening drive. The Bellingham product motioned right, then stopped behind quarterback Cameron Ward as the ball was snapped. Smithson took off back to his left, caught a backward pass and followed his blockers, laying out for a 3-yard score.

“It was definitely surreal,” said Smithson, who is up to 145 yards on 16 catches this year. “You watch the tape and you see I kinda stand there for a second and don’t know what to do with my hands. The moment kinda set in and I realized what I’d just done. It was a big moment for me. I’m glad I finally put some points on the board.”

The true freshman , initially recruited to play defensive back, was a fall-camp gem at his new position. Dickert has spoken highly of Smithson throughout the year.

“It’s good for a young player to see some success,” Dickert said. “That allows them to hopefully get more confidence in what they’re doing. I think that’s kinda the stage (Smithson) is at. He’s growing in his confidence level. Every time he’s out there, even at practice, I think you just see a guy that’s more and more comfortable with what we’re asking him to do.”

The Cougars didn’t need much production from their receivers versus Stanford, considering the dominant efforts from WSU’s ground game (306 yards) and defense (four takeaways).

Quarterback Cameron Ward went 16 of 32 for 176 yards, throwing just seven passes in the second half. He completed 14 of 25 passes for 143 yards and two TDs in the first half. WSU receivers dropped four passes.

“We still had too many drops and a couple of missed assignments,” Smithson said.

WR notes

Three players are sharing the majority of WSU’s receiving production. Stribling, a sophomore returning starter, paces the Cougars in yards (448) and touchdowns (five) and is tied for the team lead with 36 receptions. Ferrel, a senior transfer, has come up with 36 catches for 406 yards and three TDs across seven games – two fewer than Stribling – after missing WSU’s preseason and first two contests with an injury. Ollie, in his second season as a WSU starter, has 373 yards and three scores on 35 grabs.

Overall, it’s been an inconsistent season for the WSU receivers, a position group that was generally expected to be one of the team’s strongest. There have been signs of big-play potential, to be sure, but also lengthy stretches of ineffective play defined by drops and a lack of separation.

The Cougars played the past three games without their best receiver.

Slotback Renard Bell is still recovering from an arm injury sustained Oct. 8 at USC. The seventh-year senior is “a little bit ahead of schedule” and will enter WSU’s return-to-play protocol “in the next week or two weeks,” Dickert said.

“I think sooner rather than later Renard will be back.”

With Bell sidelined, the Cougars reworked their receiving corps, moving Stribling to the slot from his regular post at outside receiver and promoting Smithson into the starting lineup.

“I’m really grateful for the opportunity and the trust (WRs coach Joel Filani and offensive coordinator Eric Morris) put into a true freshman,” Smithson said. “I think I earned it by being willing to be coachable and coming in here as a blank slate. I didn’t really have too many bad habits to start off with.”

Morris, Filani take new stations

Morris called plays from the coaches’ box for the first seven games of the year, but moved to field level for WSU’s matchup with Utah on Oct. 27.

“That was something we had a conversation about during the bye week,” Dickert said. “We just felt like it was best for the overall offensive performance to have him down there. I think it’s really important for him as the OC, but more importantly as the QB coach to be there and talk to Cam in between series.”

Filani, after coaching from the sideline for the first half of the season, has spent the past few games stationed in the box, so he can “see more receiver routes,” Dickert said.

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