PULLMAN – After standout slotback Renard Bell went down with an injury, Washington State took stock of its receiving corps.
The Cougars, whose base offense features two inside receivers (slotbacks) and two outside receivers, identified their four best pass-catching options, regardless of position.
They settled on a group that includes three outside receivers – second-year starters De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie, and true freshman Leyton Smithson – and slotback Robert Ferrel.
WSU shifted Stribling inside and promoted Smithson into the starting lineup to make up for the loss of Bell, a senior who will be sidelined indefinitely after sustaining an arm injury Oct. 8 at USC.
Stribling played his first game at the slot position and Smithson made his first career start on Oct. 15 at Oregon State. Stribling had 45 yards on three catches and Smithson added 62 yards on four receptions, but the Cougars’ offense faltered in the 24-10 loss.
WSU (4-3, 1-3 Pac-12) will send out the same new-look set of receivers when it hosts No. 14 Utah at 7 p.m. Thursday.
“With Renard out, we needed to try to find a way to get our playmakers the ball as much as possible,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said. “I think that’s what we’re trying to do, moving Strib inside.”
Slotbacks tend to be smaller, elusive receiving targets with quick feet. Bell, for instance, did some of his finest work on shallow crossing routes, using sharp cuts to shake defenders. Stribling, at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, gives the Cougars a “long strider” at the slotback position, a potential deep threat down the middle of the field, Dickert noted.
“I think there was also a scheme emphasis of getting a big body in there so we can work more of the middle of the field. We can (pass) more down the field in the seams,” he added. “I think that’s what Strib gives us in there – a change-of-pace guy.
“There is some give and take. Renard is a little more snappy on underneath routes off of his cuts. Strib is a little more of a long-strider, big body.”
Stribling broke into the starting lineup as a true freshman last season and led all Pac-12 rookie receivers in catches (44), yards (471) and touchdowns (five). This season, the Hawaii native paces the Cougar receivers with 359 yards and four touchdowns.
“I’ve just been really impressed with Strib and his mentality,” Dickert said. “His voice has grown. He is really finding ways to be a leader in practice. … Those are the steps and the maturation of a young player.
“I think he has handled being in the slot, which also isn’t easy. People think it’s just a receiver – you just go out there and run a route – but there is a mentality difference in (the slot) and things happen faster.”
Dickert indicated that WSU had considered moving Smithson to the slot, because he “maybe fits better as an inside guy.” But “putting the stress on Strib to learn a new position” seemed like the safer bet.
“I think Strib can handle it – that’s (his) maturity,” Dickert said.
Smithson starred at Squalicum High (Bellingham) last season as a dual-threat quarterback. Initially recruited to WSU as a defensive back, Smithson flipped to receiver shortly after signing. He impressed coaches with his speed during fall camp and ascended the depth chart, claiming a second-team spot on the depth chart before the season began. Playing limited snaps for the first six games of the year, Smithson has had 97 yards on eight catches.
“Every time he touches the ball, you just see his growth,” Dickert said. “I’m excited about what he has continued to do, and we gotta find ways to get him the ball in space. This is his first year playing wide receiver. Let’s make sure everyone understands that. Last year, he was running the rock at quarterback.
“I think (Smithson’s emergence) allows you to be more versatile. We need guys like that to step up as we go throughout these last five weeks.”
Dickert is looking for Ollie to improve his production on downfield routes. Ollie has tallied 354 yards and two touchdowns on a team-high 33 receptions. Dickert is also waiting on a breakout game from backup slot Orion Peters, who shined during fall camp but has produced just 48 yards this season.
Ferrel has been a reliable target since joining the fold in Week 3 – he missed WSU’s preseason and first two games with an ankle injury. The senior Incarnate Word transfer has 339 yards and three TDs on 25 catches. Ferrel replaced Lincoln Victor in WSU’s starting lineup early this season. Victor had been one of WSU’s most productive receivers of the preseason, but he’s been quiet this year. The junior recorded 39 yards on five catches over the past four games.
“Peters needs to be a bigger part of the offense, and I think he will be,” Dickert said. “Rob has been very consistent. Don needs to make some plays down the field. It’s everybody. It starts with me.”
WSU’s receivers have shown some encouraging flashes in the team’s Air Raid offense, but the group has been largely underwhelming after entering the season with high expectations surrounding it.
“Consistency – that’s the word we’ve been using over the course of the bye week and into this short game week,” Dickert said of the receivers. “We’ve got to be more consistent. There are times when you love it. There are times when you see Rob doing it at an elite level. I think you saw Renard doing it at an elite level. It’s just not consistent enough over time.
“When we have taken our shots down the field … we just haven’t given our guys enough opportunities to go make the play. We are leaving too many of those throws out of bounds.”
The Cougar receivers seemed to have trouble separating from defensive backs in WSU’s two most recent games, losses to USC and Oregon State.
“I feel like everybody, in those last two games, we kinda got away from ourselves, away from our technique,” Ollie said. “We just have to get a refresh on that and get it rolling again.”
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