PULLMAN – Jayden de Laura lifted Washington State, then left the program, joined a Pac-12 foe and became one of the more polarizing figures in WSU football history. Ahead of a matchup against their ex-quarterback, the Cougars say there’s no hard feelings.
“I’ve always been really impressed with what Jayden can do, and I appreciate everything he’s done for us,” first-year WSU coach Jake Dickert said earlier this week of Arizona’s quarterback. “I think one of those things that is important is: Sometimes, change is good for everybody. That’s what this situation is about.”
The teams have tried to downplay the emotional side of this game. But there’s sure to be an added level of motivation on both sidelines when WSU (6-4, 3-4 Pac-12) visits the desert for a much-anticipated game at 11 a.m. Saturday against de Laura’s Wildcats (4-6, 2-5).
“I’d love to say that it’s going to be just another game for everybody,” Arizona coach Jedd Fisch said. “I’d assume it’s going to have some form of an impact on Jayden. … On the same token, it’s Jayden’s job to make sure it doesn’t affect him and he doesn’t play the game any differently.”
After leading an upset victory over No. 9 UCLA last weekend, de Laura was asked about the significance of facing his former team. De Laura, known for his fiery personality, caused a stir with his response. He called the game “personal” and told viewers to “just watch.”
“I’m aware of (the comments), but our focus is on what we need to do to get better, period,” Dickert said. “Anything else is a distraction to the mission.
“I’m not a big believer in external motivators. … We’re not playing one individual. We’re playing an Arizona team that is much-improved.”
De Laura is at the top of the scouting report. The dual-threat junior is second in the Pac-12 in passing and seventh nationally with 3,128 yards. De Laura has thrown 24 touchdowns against eight interceptions on a 63.4% rate. A team captain and charismatic leader – which showed up in a big way for WSU last year – de Laura has been the key to the Wildcats’ uptick in success this year after a one-win 2021 season.
“He’s a fierce competitor,” WSU edge rusher Brennan Jackson said. “We knew that when he was here and I wish the best of luck to him. I hope he’s doing great over there. He’s doing really good this season and we’re excited for a great challenge.”
Recapping the de Laura saga at WSU
Recruited by former coach Mike Leach, de Laura opted to stick with WSU after Leach departed for Mississippi State. The Cougars hired Nick Rolovich out of Hawaii in early 2020. De Laura and Rolovich were already familiar. The QB played his prep ball just down the road from the state university, at Saint Louis School in Honolulu. He operated a run-and-shoot offense – the same system Rolovich employed.
The two quickly formed a bond at WSU. De Laura won the starting job as a true freshman and performed to mixed results during the Cougars’ four-game, coronavirus-affected 2020 season. Still, it appeared as though he’d be WSU’s QB of the future.
De Laura missed spring camp while serving a suspension for an offseason DUI, of which he was later acquitted. De Laura lost a QB battle in fall camp 2021. Rolovich said de Laura had to work on his maturity, so the coach started Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano.
But Guarantano went down with an injury early in a Week 1 game against Utah State. De Laura was impressive in relief, and never relinquished the role.
“When I was with Rolo, (QB coach Craig) Stutzmann and the other guys that got fired, they kind of gave me the opportunity to grow and stay on the team with what I went through, and I appreciate them,” de Laura said.
Less than two months later, in the midst of a three-game winning streak, Rolovich and four WSU staffers were terminated for failing to comply with a state COVID-19 vaccine mandate. De Laura had lost his mentor, but he released a statement shortly afterward, calling on the WSU fan base to unite and support the team in the wake of the coaching shakeup.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” de Laura said Tuesday told local media members Tuesday when asked of his reaction to Rolovich’s firing.
Dickert took the helm as interim coach and put confidence in de Laura, later tabbing him the “catalyst” to WSU’s strong finish on offense.
“It helped me grow as a leader,” de Laura said of the 2021 season. “It was kind of just gaining the trust of everybody on that team. We had to finish the season out for each other and it kind of made us close. To this day, I still have bonds with all of those teammates.
“I’d say it was difficult, but we got through it. We got through it, for sure.”
He rallied the team to a winning season – headlined by an unforgettable Apple Cup rout of Washington at Husky Stadium. De Laura planted the Ol’ Crimson flag at midfield after the 40-13 victory, solidifying himself as an important piece of WSU lore.
“It’s not how I pictured it (ending),” de Laura said of his WSU career, “but I’d say the win versus Washington was a really good win for the community at Washington State, the seniors, the older guys, because that game holds big value to all of them.”
The Cougars were picked to play in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31. De Laura arrived in El Paso, Texas, a few days after his teammates. His post-Christmas travel plans were delayed by weather.
De Laura felt steady pressure and took several hits behind a patchwork offensive line in the first half. After halftime, WSU plugged in Victor Gabalis at QB. De Laura emerged from the locker room in street clothes partway through the third quarter.
“I went in and got an X-ray on my ankle,” de Laura said this week of the Sun Bowl, “and knew I wasn’t able to play, so me and the trainers kind of agreed to just sit the rest of the game out.”
Less than an hour after the game, Incarnate Word quarterback Cameron Ward announced he had received an offer from WSU – the Cougars had already hired UIW head coach Eric Morris to be their offensive coordinator in 2022, and it was clear they were recruiting the star Cardinal QB to tag along. Yet Dickert had indicated during the lead-up to the bowl game that WSU planned to build its next offense around de Laura. After Rolovich’s firing, though, there was always a sense among the WSU faithful that de Laura could be on his way out, too.
Speculation regarding de Laura’s abrupt Sun Bowl exit swirled in Coug circles. But a couple of weeks after WSU’s 24-21 loss to Central Michigan, Dickert reaffirmed that de Laura had sustained an injury.
“I’d really like to put all that to bed,” Dickert said Jan. 11 when asked whether de Laura and WSU had a falling-out. “There’s been no situation that’s happened and I just wish Jayden the best.”
De Laura entered the NCAA transfer portal Jan. 7. Three days later, Ward committed to WSU. That same evening, de Laura pledged to Arizona.
De Laura finished his Cougars career with 3,684 passing yards, 28 touchdowns and 13 interceptions on a 62.5% completion rate across 16 appearances. He guided eight wins. De Laura claimed the 2021 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year award, then signed on with Arizona as a prized recruit.
“This offseason, I was kind of looking for the opportunity to play (WSU),” de Laura said, “and the opportunity presents itself this upcoming week.”
After offering praise for the Cougars’ defense, de Laura was asked about potential trash talk on Saturday.
“No, no,” he said. “It’s going to be fun, though. I know we’re going to be saying stuff to each other, but it’s all within the game.”
What they’re saying
For both programs, it’s the same message: Keep the emotions in check, don’t get caught up in the storyline surrounding this game and approach this opponent the same as any other.
“We know they’re an electric offense. They got a really good scrambling quarterback and we just need to be able to shut that down and find ways to get pressure on him,” Jackson said. “It’s not just focusing on one person.”
WSU slot receiver Lincoln Victor, a fellow Hawaiian and friend of de Laura’s, dismissed all the pregame chatter as “outside noise.”
“I know there’s a lot of stuff going on, on social media, but (we’re) just noticing all that stuff is a bunch of words,” Victor said. “I think we’ll be just fine focusing on ourselves.”
Dickert addressed de Laura’s comments during a team meeting this week, according to tailback Nakia Watson.
“We’re not going to really feed into what one person says,” Watson said.
“It all started with coach Dickert. He was like, ‘Yeah, (de Laura) said that, but we have something bigger than just that. We have bigger goals to achieve than just trying to target what one person is saying.’ That’s kind of how we keep that balance.”
Fisch has leaned on de Laura’s arm throughout the year. The second-year coach is reminding his first-year QB to stay composed in Arizona’s pursuit of a postseason berth.
“As you all know, I believe in Jayden de Laura very much,” Fisch said. “I think he has a great skill set. If he can just play within himself and not let the opponent affect him, and treat them like they’re nameless and faceless, in a lot of ways that’ll help him and all of us.”
Sizing up the QBs
Arizona leveled up at the quarterback position, adding a dynamic player who is “probably as good as it gets, off script,” Dickert said of de Laura. “He’s a good improviser and they’ve been making a ton of plays scrambling around.”
De Laura is one of the nation’s most productive passers, but – as was the case at WSU – he’s been erratic in some contests, with highs and lows to the extreme. Arizona relies greatly on its passing game. When de Laura is clicking, the Wildcats tend to thrive. When he struggles, the Wildcats are usually doomed.
Arguments can be made about whether WSU improved at the quarterback spot. Overall, Ward’s been solid – not exceptional, but safe and efficient. He hasn’t been quite as explosive as de Laura, but he’s not as volatile, either. While de Laura is known for his impassioned style of play, Ward’s on-field personality could be described as coolheaded.
Like his WSU predecessor, Ward is impressive on improvisational plays and scrambles. Excluding yards lost from sacks, Ward has rushed for 245 yards and three TDs. De Laura has gained 347 yards on the ground, with three TDs.
Ward ranks fifth in the Pac-12 in passing (2,579 yards). He’s thrown 20 touchdowns against eight interceptions on a 63.7% completion rate. Ward ranks eighth in the conference in passing efficiency. De Laura is sixth in that category.
A first-year FBS player and third-year collegian, Ward has made clear strides in his decision-making over the past month. He tossed seven TDs against one interception – a pass that was bobbled – across his last five games.
“It starts with just the maturity factor and getting used to this level,” Dickert said. “The other part I think is the big distinction is the protection has gotten better. You see a lot less of Cam Ward’s wild scrambles. … He’s making good decisions out there.”
Ward has taken 33 sacks this year. De Laura has absorbed 20.
The Cougars’ defense, one of the top in the Pac-12, is taking pressure off Ward. The WSU receivers haven’t been as consistent as the Wildcats’ . Arizona’s defense, a bottom-three unit in the Pac-12, isn’t providing relief and the ground game is inconsistent. But the Wildcats enjoy one of the conference’s most talented receiving corps, boasting two Biletnikoff Award watch list players in Jacob Cowing and Dorian Singer.
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