PULLMAN – Jake Dickert directed drills, pointing and yelling and encouraging. Cameron Ward threw spirals into a net. Lincoln Victor ran routes and hauled in catches. Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone Jr. mimed their pass rushes.
As the morning sun beat down on Washington State’s Aug. 4 practice, the Cougars had no idea their entire world was changing. They had no way to know that Washington and Oregon had just agreed to leave the Pac-12, dismantling the conference as we know it. Even if they did, though, what would they have done differently? What could they have done?
WSU kept practicing. Things kept moving like normal. The whistles blew and the players slammed into sleds, the quarterbacks zipped passes and the coaches taught technique.
At the time, it registered as a bit abnormal, considering the circumstances unfolding in real time.
In hindsight, it comes across as a lesson: In what will be the final season of the Pac-12 in its current iteration, Washington State can do nothing but play its schedule and leave the conference realignment decision to school brass.
“I haven’t thought a second about it. I have no time to focus on it,” WSU coach Dickert said the day the news broke. “That’s for other people to control. My control is right here, right now.”
For the Cougars, controlling “right here, right now” will mean squeezing the most out of a loaded senior class, hoping for production from a new crop of wide receivers and letting a new offensive coordinator direct Ward, a junior with pro potential.
Things will start with the WSU players who have engineered the past few years of the program’s success: Edges Jackson and Stone . The quarterback Ward. Nakia Watson, the Cougars’ returning starter at running back, plus playmakers like Victor, cornerback Chau Smith-Wade, safeties Jaden Hicks and Sam Lockett III.
Supplementing those players will be WSU’s wide receiver corps, which is almost entirely new.
Victor is back for his fifth season, but around him are a handful of transfer wideouts for Ward to play catch with: DT Sheffield (NW Mississippi CC), Josh Kelly (Fresno State), Kyle Williams (UNLV) and Isaiah Hamilton (San Jose State). Add true freshman Carlos Hernandez into the mix and you get a receiver corps that looks almost nothing like last season’s.
How will those guys mesh with Ward and new offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle, a 27-year-old who came from Western Kentucky? That may go a long way in shaping this Washington State season.
Here’s the skinny on Arbuckle: The youngest Power Five coordinator in the country, he spent the past two seasons at Western Kentucky, the first as an offensive quality control coach and the next as the offensive coordinator. He helped the Hilltoppers rack up nearly 500 yards per game last season. Make no mistake: He wants to throw the ball.
On that front, Arbuckle and Ward will have no shortage of receivers with whom to work. Throughout fall camp, when they thought about their favorite parts of Arbuckle’s offense, they all seemed to agree on this: the deep ball.
“It’s been great since they got here,” Ward said. “From Kyle, DT, Linc returning, and (Kelly). Those are gonna be guys that we rely on through the longevity of the season. And they brought that energy every day, that attitude every day to get better. To see guys like that who don’t have no ego, just wanna come in and be better for themselves and the team, it means a lot to the culture.”
There’s plenty new on WSU’s defense, too. That starts with the Cougars’ new defensive coordinator, Jeff Schmedding, a Spokane native who competed in football and wrestling at University High.
Most recently, he coached two seasons at Auburn, one as assistant head coach, linebackers coach and defensive run game coordinator, the next as defensive coordinator.
He’ll oversee a defense that returns a little more experience, between Smith-Wade, Hicks, Stone , Jackson. What the Cougars spent a good chunk of fall camp deciphering was what Dickert called the “core” of their defense: Linebackers and linemen, the guys who needed to prove they deserve a starting gig.
Those names have surfaced. They include transfer linebackers Devin Richardson (Texas) and Ahmad McCullough (Maryland), plus linemen Nusi Malani and David Gusta. WSU’s defense is coming together and crystallizing.
“You gotta start with the guys up front,” Schmedding said. “Brennan Jackson, he’s tough to deal with, and what I say about him is the way he comes to work and the way he works in between the things that are required has been impressive. You have RJ Stone. You have a lot of guys.”
The Cougars do have a lot of guys. They’ll be in charge of shepherding the team through this season, which starts Saturday at Colorado State and finishes Nov. 25 at Washington, potentially the final Apple Cup as the Pac-12 falls apart.
Washington State’s coaches and players, though, can’t do much about that. All they can do is play this season. It might turn into one of the more fascinating ones in recent memory.