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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State notebook: Renard Bell makes long-awaited return to Los Angeles; coach Jake Dickert names rising players

Oct. 4, 2022 Updated Tue., Oct. 4, 2022 at 10:01 p.m.

Washington State receiver Renard Bell (9) tries to extend the ball past the pylon as he is pushed out of bounds by California cornerback Collin Gamble during the second half of a Pac-12 game on Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State receiver Renard Bell (9) tries to extend the ball past the pylon as he is pushed out of bounds by California cornerback Collin Gamble during the second half of a Pac-12 game on Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – During his upbringing in the heart of Los Angeles, Renard Bell lived in the shadow of the Coliseum. The veteran Washington State receiver grew up just down the road from USC’s campus and the iconic football venue he will be playing in this weekend.

“I’m super excited. I can’t wait,” Bell said Tuesday after practice at Rogers Field, “because it’s five minutes from my house.”

Bell will be supported by a host of family members and friends on Saturday when he makes his L.A. homecoming. The Cougars meet the sixth-ranked Trojans at 4:30 p.m. at the Coliseum.

“I’m trying to get a couple of extra tickets, just in case anybody else wants to go,” Bell said after naming eight definite attendees, including his parents and sister.

“I can definitely hear (my mom) from the stands, without a doubt. … I know it’s going to fire me up a little bit.”

Bell played his prep ball at Cathedral High – about 5 miles north of USC. He raked in notable accolades and became one of the top receiver prospects in the L.A. metro. The Trojans didn’t show recruiting interest.

USC wasn’t Bell’s childhood dream school. His family is originally from Louisiana, so he was a fan of LSU as a kid. But make no mistake – Bell always looks forward to playing the Trojans.

Though he tries to “treat every game the same,” Bell can’t help but feel extra motivation when he lines up against the hometown team that overlooked him.

“I study like crazy for each game,” he said. “This game, I studied like crazy. But I think it’s more of an emotional attachment to the game that will kind of bring out a little bit more in me within the game, a little more fire. That’s probably what the difference is between this one (and other games).

“I appreciate the external factors. Friday, once I get there, (I’ll) see my family. Then once Saturday hits … I’m purely focused on the game.”

Saturday’s Pac-12 matchup will be Bell’s fourth and final game against USC. He first met the Trojans as a redshirt freshman in 2017. Bell had 101 yards on three catches, helping the Cougars knock off No. 5 USC 30-27 in Pullman. WSU hasn’t beaten the Trojans – or a top-10 opponent – since. Bell and the Cougars (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) are hoping for a similarly unforgettable result this weekend when they take on USC (5-0, 3-0), the early-season front-runner in the conference.

“It’s a great team, and I love playing great teams,” Bell said. “It’s an opportunity for us to go down there and show what the Cougs are made of.”

Bell appeared, but didn’t record any stats, in a 39-36 defeat at the Coliseum in 2018. He hauled in a career-high 11 catches for 76 yards and a touchdown in WSU’s 38-13 road loss in 2020.

“I watched that game 100 times,” he said during a preseason interview. “I remember crying on the sideline after we lost and (a coach) told me to just use that to fuel you. I did and I can’t wait.”

WSU dropped a home game 45-14 to USC last season. Bell missed the 2021 campaign due to an ACL injury. Now back in form, the seventh-year senior is coming off his best showing of the year. He accumulated 115 yards and a long touchdown on eight catches last weekend in the Cougars’ 28-9 victory over California.

Bell is WSU’s No. 3-leading receiver this season with 282 yards and two scores on 20 catches.

With 63 more yards, Bell will surpass the 2,000-yard mark for his career. He is tied for 10th in program history with 18 receiving touchdowns.

WSU’s program enjoys deep recruiting connections in the L.A. area. The team’s roster includes 23 Southern California natives. Expect a large Cougars contingent to be in attendance at the Coliseum.

“This will be the first time my whole family comes to a game this year,” said linebacker Travion Brown, who hails from Moreno Valley – located on the eastern edge of the L.A. metro. “It makes you feel like you’re loved. You got your people there, your family there watching you. You got people in the stands that support you. … It’s a feeling you can’t really describe, because you’ve been far away for so long. Being able to come back home and play in front of my family, that’s an experience you can’t even describe.

“I’ll do my job, but I’ll definitely be more animated.”

Rising players

Asked to name the team’s most improved players from Week 1 to Week 5, Cougars coach Jake Dickert first singled out Christian Hilborn, a second-year freshman and first-year starter on WSU’s offensive line.

Hilborn, who won a position battle for left guard in the preseason, had “by far his best game” last weekend against Cal after “by far his worst game” against Oregon on Sept. 24.

“We challenged him all week, because I think he had more in the tank, that he could strain and finish and be tougher and more aggressive. … It was out there on Saturday.

“He’s still a freshman. He has a long way to go, but he’s getting better each week. That combination of (left tackle Jarrett Kingston) and Christian is starting to play more aggressively and more downhill.”

Hilborn claimed WSU’s “offensive lineman of the week” award. The Cougars gave up just one first-quarter sack versus the Golden Bears. WSU came into that game with a conference-worst 14 sacks allowed.

The Cougars are still searching for consistency in their ground game, which is producing Pac-12 lows in yards per game (91.8) and carry (3.7).

Dickert also commended true freshman receiver Leyton Smithson, senior defensive tackle Christian Mejia, starting cornerback Chau Smith-Wade and second-year safety Jaden Hicks.

Smithson has claimed a backup role at outside receiver. He rotated into the lineup regularly last weekend and came up with a 17-yard catch on a third-and-13 play in the second quarter. Smithson has 35 yards on four catches this year.

“He’s been battling through a little injury, but you’ve seen some speed plays out of him,” Dickert said of the Bellingham product.

Mejia has been the most productive defensive tackle in WSU’s five-man rotation up front. He posted a sack last week after missing the Oregon game because his wife had gone into labor – Mejia became a father on Sept. 24. In four games, he has 13 tackles and 1½ sacks.

“His consistency has just been phenomenal,” Dickert said.

Smith-Wade, a first-year starter who was WSU’s No. 3 cornerback last season, is the third-highest graded CB in the Pac-12, according to Pro Football Focus’ performance metrics. Smith-Wade has tallied 20 tackles – two for loss – with an interception and two pass deflections.

“Chau has done a good job of really replacing (Jaylen Watson) and making plays at a high level,” Dickert said, referring to the former Cougar who plays for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Hicks earned a playing role with an impressive fall camp, then slid into a starting role in Week 3 after veteran strong safety Jordan Lee sustained an injury.

“(Starting) helped teach me to be ready and to perfect my craft,” Hicks said Tuesday. “With J-Lee being out, I stepped up.”

Hicks made a name for himself this preseason with his hard-hitting tendencies. He is WSU’s second-leading tackler with 35 stops, including two TFLs and a sack.

“I always knew what Jaden Hicks could be, but to go out and do it is a whole ’nother thing,” Dickert said.

WSU’s secondary showed inexperience in a 44-41 loss to the Ducks, who connected on several big gains down the field, but the Cougars’ defensive backs shored up the soft spots and limited Cal’s passing attack.

“You win some, you lose some. I knew I had to bounce back the next game and be mentally prepared,” Hicks said.

Dickert is “very confident” that Lee will return to the field for Saturday’s game.

“If he’s back, I’ll wait my turn and see when my number’s called,” Hicks said.

Hicks lined up at strong safety for the first week of fall camp, then was moved to free safety. He played steady reps off the bench at free safety for the first two weeks of the season. When Lee went down, Dickert shifted Hicks back to his original position. It’s possible he sees time at both safety positions going forward.


• Wide receiver Zeriah Beason is no longer a member of Washington State’s football program, Cougars coach Jake Dickert told media members Monday.

Beason joined WSU this offseason after two years at Oregon State. He captured a role in the Cougars’ receiver rotation during fall camp, but never appeared in a game. A few days before WSU’s season opener, Dickert informed reporters that Beason would be out indefinitely as he worked through unspecified “eligibility issues.”

• WSU will play just its second night game of the season when it meets Oregon State in Corvallis on Oct. 15 at 6 p.m. Pac-12 Network will carry the broadcast.

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