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Sports >  WSU football

Washington State notebook: Cougar secondary ‘hopefully’ healthy against Cal; WSU to honor legendary 1997 team

Sept. 28, 2022 Updated Wed., Sept. 28, 2022 at 8:28 p.m.

Washington State defensive backs Derrick Langford Jr. (5), Jaden Hicks (25) and Adrian Shepherd celebrate after Hicks intercepted a Colorado State pass during the second half of a college football game on Sept. 17 at Gesa Field in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State defensive backs Derrick Langford Jr. (5), Jaden Hicks (25) and Adrian Shepherd celebrate after Hicks intercepted a Colorado State pass during the second half of a college football game on Sept. 17 at Gesa Field in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Washington State’s secondary showed inexperience last weekend, but the Cougars’ defensive backfield might welcome back a veteran leader Saturday.

Strong safety Jordan Lee is nearing a return to action after missing WSU’s past two games. The grad transfer started the Cougars’ first two games and performed well before suffering an unspecified injury late in a Sept. 10 contest at Wisconsin.

Lee went through warmups ahead of the Cougars’ home game last Saturday against Oregon. Before kickoff, WSU staffers decided he wasn’t quite ready.

“We’re getting there,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said Wednesday after practice when asked about Lee’s status for Saturday’s homecoming game against Cal. “He’s starting to work more into the team sessions and we’re getting him there.

“He’s done everything we could possibly ask to get back on the field. Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to see those results this week.”

Lee, who appeared in 47 games over the past four years with Nevada, is by far the most experienced piece in the safeties room, which lost three key contributors to graduation after the 2021 season.

Second-year freshman Jaden Hicks started in Lee’s place the past two weeks, pairing with junior college transfer free safety Sam Lockett III. Oregon aimed to exploit WSU’s unproven secondary and amassed 446 passing yards – with several big plays late in the game – during a 44-41 comeback win at Gesa Field.

WSU players and coaches have acknowledged that communication issues plagued the defense against Oregon. The Cougars should see improvements in that regard when Lee returns to the field.

The 5-foot-11, 202-pounder earned a reputation as a strong tackler with the Wolf Pack. He totaled 143 tackles, six fumble recoveries, four forced fumbles and seven pass break-ups over the past three seasons. As a senior last season, Lee had 86 tackles – five for loss – while forcing four fumbles and recovering five. He was named an All-Mountain West honorable mention pick.

Known as a reliable run-stopper and open-field tackler, Lee recorded nine tackles and two tackles for loss in his first two games with the Cougars, who will be facing an impressive rushing offense when they meet Cal at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Gesa Field.

“There are definitely some moments in this game that fit him,” Dickert said, noting the Golden Bears’ heavy-running sets and underneath passing game, “some of the bigger-body personnels, keeping the (ball) in shorter spaces.”

The Bears are paced by true freshman tailback Jaydn Ott, who leads the Pac-12 and ranks 11th nationally with 463 rushing yards. Ott, the reigning Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week, piled up 274 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries in Cal’s 49-31 win over Arizona last weekend. He ranks third nationally in yards per carry (8.27).

“We gotta make sure we’re keeping him bottled up,” Dickert said. “He’s hitting the big play. He has the ability to not just make people miss, but to take it the distance. You group-tackle guys like that.”

Tight end, backup RB positions solidify

Billy Riviere and Andre Dollar have cemented themselves as WSU’s two top options at tight end. Riviere, known most for his blocking abilities, was the first tight end on the field for the Cougars’ first three games but was dealing with a nagging injury last weekend. Dollar, a highly regarded recruit last offseason out of Oklahoma, made his first career start – and the first true start by a WSU tight end in 11 years. WSU’s offense opened its first three games without a tight end on the field. Dollar did not record a catch against Oregon.

“Billy wasn’t 100% last week, so I think it was Andre’s opportunity to go in there,” Dickert said. “We’ll probably still lean a little bit heavier to Billy, but sometimes getting both of them out there to see what we can do in some short-yardage packages.”

Five tight ends were in a competition for snaps during the preseason. Riviere held down the No. 1 role throughout fall camp. Dollar missed a stretch of practice in August with an injury. Moon Ashby, Cameron Johnson and Cooper Mathers (injured) are no longer listed on WSU’s two-deep depth chart.

Three true freshman skill players – Dollar, running back Jaylen Jenkins and receiver Leyton Smithson – will not redshirt this year, Dickert said Monday.

“That sets you up for playing a ton of football,” Dickert said. “That’s important. Any time you can be a three-year starter at this level of football, there are good things in your future. That’s the plan for Andre.”

Smithson is taking steady reps as a reserve outside receiver. Jenkins has established himself as the No. 2 tailback behind junior Nakia Watson. True freshman Djouvensky Schlenbaker, who saw plenty of action with WSU’s first and second units during spring ball and fall camp, has apparently fallen out of contention for playing time. Spokane native Kannon Katzer is settled at third-string running back.

“Right now, he’s doing what a lot of true freshmen do and that is working on the scout team and staying ready,” Dickert said of Schlenbaker. “He’s still learning the offense and growing, too. It’ll mainly be those two guys (Watson and Jenkins), but it’s also because Katzer has done a really good job and has earned that third spot.”

WSU to host 1997 Cougar team

Generally considered the best team in program history, the 1997 Cougars will reunite in Pullman this weekend to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their 10-win season and Rose Bowl appearance.

The ’97 team is planning a pregame gathering and will be celebrated during halftime. It’s uncertain how many members of the Pac-10 championship outfit will be in attendance, but a school spokesman said the group will be large. Dickert is hoping to arrange some meetings between current and former Cougars. Mike Price, who coached the team from 1989 to 2002, is expected to speak to WSU’s 2022 team on Friday evening.

“It’s history, it’s Washington State history and there are so many guys that have laid the foundation for what we have now,” Dickert said.

“To do something that we all strive to do here – that’s winning the Pac-12 and getting to a Rose Bowl – to have those guys do it and share the experience with the players I think is really important.”

The 1997 Cougars opened their season with seven straight wins and concluded the regular season with a 41-35 victory over No. 20 Washington. WSU claimed a share of the Pac-10 title and earned a berth to the Rose Bowl. The Cougars fell to Michigan 21-16. It appeared WSU’s offense would have a chance at a final play from the Wolverines’ 26-yard line, but referees determined the clock had run out before quarterback Ryan Leaf spiked the ball.

“I swear Leaf spiked that ball (in time). We should have gotten another play,” said Dickert, who recently sat down to watch a highlight reel of WSU’s 1997 team.

Leaf came in third in Heisman voting. He earned Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year honors and was named an All-American. He was flanked by a star-studded receiving corps that played under the moniker Fab Five. WSU’s defense featured stars in defensive tackle Leon Bender and linebacker Steve Gleason. Price earned multiple coach of the year awards after leading the team to a top-10 finish in the national rankings.

WSU produces impressive viewership numbers

The Cougars’ game against Oregon drew 2.27 million viewers on Fox – a bigger TV audience than any Pac-12 game this weekend, according to SuperWest Sports.

The site has been tracking viewership data for West Coast college football teams throughout the season. Oregon is the No. 1 most-watched Pac-12 team with a total reported TV viewership of 11.05 million. WSU is second at 6.19 million.

The Cougars’ Sept. 10 game against Wisconsin featured a TV audience of 3.9 million viewers – ranking fourth among college football game of Week 2, per Stewart Mandel of The Athletic. It helped that the game was a midday kickoff on Fox and followed a marquee matchup between Alabama and Texas.

According to Mandel, the Cougars regularly draw more viewers than over half of their Pac-12 counterparts and other Power Conference programs such as Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.

The viewership numbers shine a favorable light on WSU amid talks of conference realignment. Television audiences and media markets have been a major point of discussion since USC and UCLA changed the landscape on June 30, when the Los Angeles schools announced they will leave the Pac-12 in 2024 to join the Big Ten – a more lucrative conference, in terms of media value.

“Fan bases and brands are what’s meaningful in college football,” Dickert said during the Pac-12’s media day in July. “Washington State is a brand that people know and recognize. More importantly, our people watch us.

“Those (TV viewership) numbers show the power of Washington State, our fan base and the brand. Even though we’re not in a major market, people watch Washington State. You don’t need a major market to have people watch you.”

WSU will play at least two more nationally televised games this season. Fox will broadcast an Oct. 8 game at USC. Fox Sports 1 will carry the Cougars’ Oct. 27 home game against Utah.

Jackson named semifinalist for national award

WSU edge rusher Brennan Jackson was selected as one of 156 semifinalists – 10 from the Pac-12 – for the William V. Campbell Trophy, the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame announced.

The award recognizes “an individual as the absolute best football scholar-athlete in the nation for his combined academic success, football performance and exemplary leadership,” per a release from WSU, which nominated the fifth-year Cougar for the honor.

A team captain, Jackson is tied for fourth in the Pac-12 with 6½ tackles for loss – including two sacks – and ranks seventh in the conference in quarterback pressure (11). The 6-foot-3, 263-pounder from Temecula, California, is fifth on his team with 17 tackles.

In the classroom, Jackson boasts a 3.89 gpa in his second year pursuing a master’s degree in business administration. Jackson serves on the team’s leadership council, WSU’s student-athlete advisory committee and is the secretary and treasurer for the school’s Black Student-Athlete Association.

The National Football Foundation will announce 12 to 14 finalists on Oct. 26. Each will receive an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship as a member of the NFF National Scholar-Athlete Class.

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