PULLMAN – Washington State’s edge rushers dazzled throughout the preseason and excelled in the Cougars’ season opener.
The position group has already distinguished itself as perhaps the strongest facet of WSU’s team.
But over the past four weeks, Cougar edges haven’t played at full strength.
Ron Stone Jr., a captain and a first-team All-Pac-12 performer last season, participated in a limited capacity during fall camp and played sparingly in WSU’s Week 1 win over Idaho. WSU coaches held Stone back, allowing him to recover properly from an unspecified injury sustained this summer.
Now, the Cougars are ready to turn Stone loose. WSU’s edges are finally playing at full power, and the timing couldn’t have been much better.
The Cougars need maximum effort from their edges – and defensive front, in general – to have a chance this weekend against No. 19 Wisconsin and its powerful ground game. Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
Stone is looking forward to an increased workload after playing just 26 of 66 defensive snaps in the Cougars’ 24-17 victory over Idaho on Saturday.
“Football’s not fun if you can’t play, so I think it was a smart decision we made, and we made it for my benefit,” Stone said Tuesday. “I’m excited to get out there with no limit and just be able to go back to playing as many reps as I usually do.”
The highly touted junior – a watch list player for multiple national awards – logged a sack and a tackle at the line of scrimmage on Idaho’s first series, then spent much of the evening out of the lineup, spectating from the sideline and offering guidance for his young replacements.
“We had a certain target of snaps we wanted (Stone) to hit,” coach Jake Dickert said. “We’ve been in constant communication with RJ and his family. This was best for RJ and his progression. … Now, we’ve gotten over this hump.”
Cougars edge rushers still impressed when Stone wasn’t on the field. Five others found success in a steady rotation – which included standout Brennan Jackson, along with reserves Andrew Edson, Quinn Roff, Lawrence Falatea and Raam Stevenson.
Overall, the edges combined for 14 tackles, five tackles for loss, three sacks and four QB hurries.
“It was an opportunity for those younger guys,” Stone said. “They attacked it and I’m excited for them. Me taking less reps gives more reps to someone else in that position who is going to get more experience and ultimately help this team.
“If you’re not excited for your teammates, you are a bad teammate.”
Stevenson and Falatea worked their way into playing roles this preseason after redshirting in 2021.
“You always get those first-play jitters, but once you get into the game, it’s the game you’ve been playing your whole life,” Stevenson said Wednesday. “We’re a competitive group, obviously, so we’re always pushing each other, but we’re also lifting each other up.”
WSU will bring a healthier roster into its Week 2 matchup, according to Dickert.
The Cougars played without backup left tackle Fa’alili Fa’amoe and rotational tight end Andre Dollar last weekend. Both will be “ready to go,” Dickert said.
Backup running back Djouvensky Schlenbaker is expected to contribute this season – he took significant reps with WSU’s first-team offense this preseason – but the true freshman didn’t make an appearance in Week 1.
The Cougars leaned on first-year starter Nakia Watson and sent out true freshman reserve Jaylen Jenkins on occasion.
Dickert acknowledged that Schlenbaker is working through a minor injury.
“There will be a role for Djouvensky as we go throughout the season,” he said.
Robert Ferrel, a senior slotback who transferred to WSU this summer from Incarnate Word, has been sidelined with a foot injury since the start of the preseason. He’s nearing a return.
“Hopefully, Rob is a week away,” Dickert said. “He’s now on land, moving around. … We’ll hopefully get him back out there for Colorado State (Sept. 17).”
Free safety Jaden Hicks and strong safety Adrian Shepherd should see more playing time this weekend. Both sustained minor injuries last month and were limited last weekend.
Sam Lockett III played the majority of snaps at free safety and Jordan Lee held down duties at strong safety all evening.
“Jaden was a little hobbled coming into the week. He had an amazing first scrimmage, then a tough 10-day stretch,” Dickert said. “Now, we feel we got him over the hump. He and Sam will be out there, continually battling it out. Sam in Game 1 took maybe 2-to-1 reps, but I think that’ll be 50-50 (normally).”
Asked about Shepherd, Dickert said: “After that first scrimmage (Aug. 14), we just kinda had some deals where we couldn’t get him back to full strength. We felt, with the tempo of the game, that J-Lee could really handle all the reps.”
Bell reflects on score
Renard Bell scored his first touchdown since Dec. 6, 2020, when he caught a 3-yard pass from Cameron Ward late in the second quarter of Saturday’s game.
Bell suffered an ACL injury in summer 2021 and missed all of last season.
“As soon I stepped into the end zone, it was kinda like a sense of relief,” Bell said, “just to myself, ‘OK, I really am playing again.’
“I’m getting back into the rhythm. … I’m into that groove and just ready to keep going.”
The reception marked the 17th career touchdown catch for the seventh-year Cougar. With one more scoring catch, Bell will break into the top 10 in WSU program history in TD receptions.
The veteran slotback and team captain was dissatisfied with the Cougars’ offensive performance against Idaho. WSU’s passing game was especially inconsistent.
“We were sloppy the entire game,” Bell said. “We were busting plays, running the wrong routes, doing the wrong assignments. … We were trying to do too much, instead of doing our jobs.
“That will never happen again. That was our lowest low and it’ll never be like that again.”
Bell said the Cougars may have downplayed Idaho, an FCS team that came into the game as a four-touchdown underdog yet played with spirit under first-year coach Jason Eck.
“We kinda looked over Idaho a little bit, and I think that’s why we ended up playing too sloppy,” he said, commending the defense’s performance but lamenting the shaky opener for the new Air Raid offense.
“We were just looking over them a little too much and looking past them and seeing the next week, and not focused on what we were doing that game.”
Freshman defensive tackle steps up
David Gusta, a second-year freshman, climbed the depth chart during fall camp and has carved out a role in the Cougars’ five-man rotation at defensive tackle.
The 6-foot-3, 283-pounder from Southern California spent last year recovering from a serious foot injury. He caught the attention of defensive tackles coach Pete Kaligis this spring and was a fixture in WSU’s second-team defense during fall camp.
Gusta made the first notable play of his collegiate career on Saturday. He bulldozed into the backfield on fourth-and-2 early in the third quarter and swatted a pass to the turf.
“This is probably the best moment of my life. I’ve been waiting for this,” Gusta said Wednesday, recalling his thoughts. “I went through a whole bunch to get to that spot. … I was fighting with a whole bunch of older people, so when I got that bat down, it was probably one of the greatest moments. I stared at my mom (in the stands) and she was smiling back.”
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