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As portal opens, WSU coach Jake Dickert prioritizes fit — especially in the high school ranks

Washington State Cougars head coach Jake Dickert reacts early during the first half of a college football game against the Washington Huskies on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – As Jake Dickert and his Washington State coaching staff work to fill out the rest of this signing class, they’re facing a challenge that didn’t exist a few months ago.

The Cougars, a power-conference outfit just this summer, agreed to a scheduling agreement with the Mountain West over the weekend that will provide them six games against MWC teams, three home and three away. They aren’t a Mountain West team. They still belong to the Pac-12, whatever that will look like in the years to come.

But to some recruits, this WSU program may not look like the one they committed to before the Pac-12 fell apart. California lineman AJ Hasson, who committed before the conference collapsed, admitted he had to re-evaluate things before he reiterated his pledge. Texas wide receiver Trae Davis committed to Washington State in September – but backed out in November. (In a later post announcing his final four schools, from which he will share his decision on Dec. 12, he did list WSU).

Dickert may not be able to singlehandedly change the minds of his program’s targets – but as the transfer portal opens Monday and the Cougs begin their final pitches to recruits in the portal and in high school, he’s taking an approach centered on players’ values.

“I really hope that everyone commits for the right reason,” Dickert said, “and I feel like we’ve done a good job throughout the course of this cycle in recruiting, targeting the right person – not just the right player. And yes, we have visions and goals and dreams for these guys and what they can become, but it’s about the right person.

“And I believe the guys that we have committed to us and our targets going forward understand what we’re about as a program, understand what we’re gonna demand of them when they’re here, and we want to be partners with them and in their future success.”

The Cougs’ program is already undergoing meaningful change. Starting quarterback Cam Ward hit the portal over the weekend, and a day earlier, so did top receiver Josh Kelly. So far, those are the only starters WSU has lost to the portal, but it has lost reserves like cornerback Javan Robinson and linebacker Ahmad McCullough.

As of Sunday afternoon, seven Cougs had shared their intent to hit the transfer portal.

Plus, graduated seniors like receiver Lincoln Victor and cornerback Cam Lampkin announced that they’re entering the NFL draft pool. Both are out of eligibility, but as program staples over the last couple years, their moves do underscore how different WSU’s program will look next season.

For that reason, Dickert said, he and WSU are targeting a couple position groups in particular: Quarterback and wide receiver. “We’ll take a look at those couple areas,” Dickert said. “Potentially a defensive back that can come in and help perform.”

But, Dickert took care to point out, the Cougs’ approach in recruiting has more to do with high school players than those out of the portal.

“We want to invest in young guys,” Dickert said, “and I’m even more convicted in that just having conversations with our team. They understand our culture. They understand the makeup of it. We’ve recruited them in their homes, and they’re here for the right reasons. And I think that’s an important thing. Obviously, you can’t have a blind eye to the portal. We’ll evaluate every good player that can help our roster. But it’s gotta be a need and there’s gotta be an extreme fit.”

Washington State’s class of 2023 portal commitments made some big splashes this fall. Here is a sampling.

• WR Josh Kelly (from Fresno State): 61 catches, 923 yards, 8 touchdowns

• WR Kyle Williams (from UNLV): 61 catches, 842 yards, 6 touchdowns

• WR Isaiah Hamilton (from San Jose State): 15 catches, 163 yards, 1 touchdown

• LB Devin Richardson (from Texas): 62 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble

• DL Na’im Rodman (from Colorado): 30 tackles

Others didn’t pan out so well. Linebacker Ahmad McCullough, who transferred in from Maryland, suffered an injury in fall camp and never became the high-level starter he was projected to be. Nickelback Dom Tatum, a Utah State transfer, departed the team in September, as did wide receiver DT Sheffield, a junior college transfer.

The Cougs will try to avoid similar experiences next fall. To Dickert, that starts with identifying the guys who want to be at WSU and live in Pullman.

“You get in the portal and it becomes now the cool thing to do,” Dickert said. “I was talking with a lot of our players. Fifteen years ago, and you said, hey, you redshirted, you carved out a role your freshman, sophomore year and you started 24 games. You would celebrate that career. You’d celebrate that career. And that’s part of the process, and he developed, and man, what an experience and you leave the program for what’s next.

“But now sometimes guys don’t have success as a true freshman, and the environments around these kids are freaking out. ‘What happened? Why aren’t you playing? What’s going on? Maybe it’s better somewhere else.’ That’s not how football works. That’s not how life works. There’s a way to get from point A to point B, and it’s consistency, and it’s development. I just think there’s a narrative that has changed.”