PULLMAN – Two starting spots on Washington State’s offensive line haven’t been decided as the Cougars prepare to take on Arizona at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Right guard Ma’ake Fifita went down with an ankle injury in the third quarter of WSU’s 28-18 win over Arizona State last weekend. The sophomore from Everett has been held out of practice so far this week, coach Jake Dickert confirmed Wednesday.
“We haven’t quite gotten him out there this week,” Dickert said. “We’re going to try in the walk-through (Thursday) to see how it goes.”
If Fifita is unavailable, the Cougars will ask sophomore Quinn McCarthy to make his first career start. McCarthy filled in well last weekend during his fourth career appearance on the WSU O-line.
“We feel confident in Quinn and what he gave us last week,” Dickert said. “We felt like he didn’t miss a beat.”
The Cougars are also sorting out their starter at left tackle. Grant Stephens, the team’s regular starter at right guard, shifted to LT last weekend to replace WSU’s best offensive lineman, Jarrett Kingston, who suffered a season-ending injury Nov. 5 at Stanford.
“I thought Grant did an admirable job,” Dickert said. “Obviously, that’s not easy. … What we asked him to do, not many people can handle it.”
Christian Hilborn, WSU’s starter at left guard throughout the season, is in the mix for the job. Hilborn, a reserve offensive tackle last season, took over for Kingston at LT against Stanford.
“We’re still looking at left tackle,” Dickert said. “Christian Hilborn has gotten better and better. He’s a little more firm out there. We’re still looking at who is going to be the best option at left tackle.”
With Stephens stationed at left tackle, Fifita came off the bench to take his place at right guard last weekend. Fifita played guard last year, then started the first six games of the year at right tackle. He switched back to guard last month and WSU called upon redshirt freshman Fa’alili Fa’amoe to adopt starting duties at right tackle.
“Everything is new to him,” Dickert said of Fa’amoe, who played on the defensive line last year and flipped to offense this offseason, splitting reps at guard and tackle throughout fall camp. “But every week is amazing, not just the small steps but the strides forward that (Fa’amoe) is taking. … He’s having fun out there. He’s getting better. He comes to practice every day and I think he’s been really physical and tough, but he’s taking big strides forward and I’m really excited about what he’s brought to our offensive line and our team. I remember that first conversation, when we told him we were going to move him. It’s the trust he had in our vision and this was the vision.”
Four of WSU’s five starters on the offensive line last weekend have played multiple positions this season.
Center Konner Gomness is the only first-team offensive lineman to have played one position throughout the year.
“He’s the anchor,” Dickert said of Gomness, a fourth-year sophomore and team captain. “He’s the anchor, mentalitywise. He’s the anchor, leadershipwise. And we put a lot on our center, too. This is a scheme where he sets the protection, he sets the targets in the run game. … That’s the one position, at least, we’ve had extreme consistency with. We can move pieces around him, but moving that center piece is hard. Konner is the glue to all five.”
Slot receiver Robert Ferrel exited the lineup in the second quarter against ASU after a hard collision. The senior transfer practiced Wednesday with no contact and is probable to play Saturday, Dickert said.
“But he looked great, he looked fast and looked himself,” Dickert said. “Those are the biggest things I look for: no hesitations, no wincing. So, I feel like Rob will be really good to go.”
Senior strong safety Jordan Lee is a “game-time decision” against Arizona. The Nevada transfer sustained an undisclosed injury Oct. 27 versus Utah.
Lee had missed three games earlier this season after going down with an injury in Week 2 against Wisconsin.
“Although this year hasn’t gone how I expected it would, I realized I’m supposed to be here, supposed to be in this moment,” Lee tweeted Tuesday. “Every roadblock I’ve faced will only help me in my future. I’m built for this. When it’s all said and done, I’ll pay these lessons forward. I can’t complain.”
Rookies earn kudos
Three veteran Cougars – edge Brennan Jackson, tailback Nakia Watson and slotback Lincoln Victor – had the same answer when asked to name scout-team players who have turned heads behind the scenes this year.
True freshman quarterback John Mateer and rookie cornerback Javan Robinson drew praise this week from their older teammates.
“John’s intangible pieces are off the chart,” Dickert said. “Then his physical tools … he’s got such a quick trigger. He’s just so different.”
Mateer won a three-man competition in the preseason for WSU’s backup job. The dual-threat QB from the Dallas area made his first career appearance Nov. 5, playing the entire fourth quarter of WSU’s blowout win over Stanford. Mateer went 2 for 2 for 32 yards and a touchdown, contributing 59 yards on four carries. Dickert has sensed an uptick in Mateer’s confidence at practice since his performance versus the Cardinal.
“John Mateer is a baller,” Watson said.
“That kid’s work ethic is next to none,” Jackson said. “It’s insane the amount of time he spends going through extra progressions. I see him in the gym every single night, just getting extra work in. … I think he’s going to be a phenomenal player. He already has that little leadership role down pat. He’s only a freshman, but he still commands the attention of the offense when he goes out there.”
A three-star recruit from the Orlando, Florida, metro, Robinson’s name came up several times during postpractice media sessions this preseason as a freshman to keep an eye on going forward. Robinson’s fast development and dedication to the mental side of the game reminds Dickert of another CB on the team: Chau Smith-Wade, a first-year starter who has emerged as one of the best defensive backs in the Pac-12.
“I anticipate him being one of those Chau-type players as he goes throughout his career,” said Dickert, who expects Robinson to play “20 to 40 snaps” per game as a sophomore “then all of a sudden, in Year 3 or 4, you’re like, ‘Dang, this guy is one of the better players in this league.’ ”
Robinson has played in two games and Mateer one. The two will use their redshirts this year.
Defensive tackle rotation healthy again
Freshman defensive tackle David Gusta, in the midst of a breakout season, missed three games with an injury, but returned to the rotation versus the Sun Devils and had affected two plays with QB hits.
“(Gusta) has given us a lot this year,” Dickert said. “One of those surprise guys, and I think that’s a big thing as you go throughout a season. You need some of those guys.”
Senior Christian Mejia, the most productive DT for the Cougars this year, played just 10 snaps against ASU due to a nagging shoulder injury. He’s expected to be at full strength this week.
“He barely practiced last week,” Dickert said of Mejia, who leads all WSU DTs with 26 tackles, four tackles for loss and 1½ sacks. “He had a shoulder deal. As the game was going, we kind of kept him out of there. I just talked to him today. He said, ‘Coach, I feel so much better.’ ”
Dickert commended his five-man DT rotation for “playing tough and physical, and keeping the line of scrimmage flat” this season. Mejia, Gusta, Amir Mujahid, Antonio Pule III and Nusi Malani have combined for 79 tackles, 9½ tackles for loss and 3½ sacks. In 13 games last year, the Cougars’ DTs totaled 69 tackles, seven TFLs and three sacks.
WSU struggled to hold up against strong rushing offenses last season, but the Cougars are getting a stronger push this year from their big men, who have helped the team to the No. 4 rushing defense in the Pac-12 (122.6 yards per game).
“In the past, they’ve gotten a lot of heat for holding us back,” Dickert said. “Not even close (to true).”
Haberer posts big numbers
Nick Haberer, the Cougars’ sophomore punter, has distinguished himself as one of the Pac-12’s best specialists after earning freshman All-America honors last year.
The Australia native leads the conference in hang-time average (4.16 seconds), fair catches (23) and punts inside the 20-yard line (16). Haberer ranks sixth nationally in hang time. He pinned opponents inside their 10-yard line on six punts over the past two weeks.
“Not possible without (long snapper Simon Samarzich’s) snaps and my boys blocking their asses off and running down to cover,” Haberer tweeted.
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