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Sports >  WSU football

Assessing Washington State’s new-look position groups, most impactful newcomers

Feb. 4, 2023 Updated Sat., Feb. 4, 2023 at 5:38 p.m.

Washington State head coach Jake Dickert and quarterback Cameron Ward meet on the sideline during the first half of the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl on Dec. 17 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. Ward will be joined by several offensive newcomers when WSU begins spring camp next month.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State head coach Jake Dickert and quarterback Cameron Ward meet on the sideline during the first half of the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl on Dec. 17 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. Ward will be joined by several offensive newcomers when WSU begins spring camp next month. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

PULLMAN – Last month, Washington State’s football team focused its recruiting efforts on three position groups and made good use of the NCAA’s transfer portal in addressing its needs.

The priorities for WSU’s roster, according to coach Jake Dickert:

• The Cougars needed to “upgrade the offensive line” with an addition or two who could provide immediate help. WSU is returning several starters up front, but the O-line group is coming off a rough 2022 season.

• WSU lost its four top receivers – two to graduation and two to the transfer portal – so “bringing in some experienced wide receivers” was a must. The Cougars added three receivers from the Group of Five level.

• The team’s three best linebackers moved on. To “secure the linebacker position,” the Cougars found three newcomers.

WSU signed seven Division I transfers in January, bringing its offseason recruiting haul to 30 total players – a class that also includes five junior college products who joined the program in December.

A dozen transfers, plus a few freshmen, will be in the mix when spring camp opens March 21. The Cougars are set to practice three times per week until the spring game April 22.

“There’s a growth mindset within all of these guys,” Dickert said. “What I see is a hunger. They’re here and they’re hungry. There has been a lot of buy-in.”

The Cougars boosted their numbers and feel comfortable they have shored up the most shorthanded of their position groups. Now, they can begin to determine roles and identify new standouts.

Of the transfers, there isn’t one player who jumps off the page , but the group boasts plenty of collegiate experience and should find places to fit in.

The headliner of the class might be middle linebacker Devin Richardson, a grad transfer who played reserve duties over the past two years at Texas after earning freshman All-America honors in 2019 at New Mexico State.

The 6-foot-3, 235-pounder has 35 games under his belt and has shown Dickert “tremendous leadership within our team.”

Two other transfer linebackers, a WSU vet and a second-year Cougar will vie for playing time.

Maryland transfer Ahmad McCullough appeared in 35 games and made seven starts for the Terrapins over the past five years. The 6-2, 225-pounder has the speed and agility of a safety, according to his new coach.

“His athleticism is off the charts,” Dickert said.

Isaiah Paul, who totaled 137 tackles and 20½ tackles for loss over the past four seasons at FCS Incarnate Word, should find his way onto the field.

“At 6-2 and 240 pounds, we feel (Paul) can be a tough, physical presence,” Dickert said.

Other contributors at the position will be outside LB Kyle Thornton, who has played in 27 games for the Cougars since 2020, and redshirt freshman middle LB Hudson Cedarland, one of the prized recruits of WSU’s 2022 class.

“Combining (the newcomers) with Hudson Cedarland’s growth at ‘mike’ and Kyle Thornton’s steadiness at the linebacker position, we feel like we have a really good base to grow on,” Dickert said.

WSU’s linebacking corps was depleted after the 2022 season. Francisco Mauigoa and Travion Brown, who shared reps at middle LB last year, transferred to Miami and Arizona State, respectively. Outside LB Daiyan Henley, the most talented player on the team, is off to the NFL. Henley has appeared this week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.

The Cougars’ offensive line returns center Konner Gomness, tackle Fa’alili Fa’amoe and guard/tackle Christian Hilborn from a group that lacked experience and underperformed in 2022, allowing 46 sacks – a bottom-five mark in the FBS.

WSU augmented its O-line with two signees: Southern Utah transfer guard Christy Nkanu and Chabot College (California) tackle Eliesa Pole.

Nkanu, a two-year starter for the FCS Thunderbirds who chose WSU over several high-major suitors, is expected to replace guard Grant Stephens. Pole, a top-10 junior college OT nationally, should also claim a starting job.

“We have talked about (Pole), bringing him in at one of those tackle spots,” Dickert said. “Christy being added gives us a big, broad base.”

Dickert is hoping to see improvements in depth up front with the development of 2022 redshirts Kendall Williams, Jakobus Seth, Zack Miller and twins Luke and Landon Roaten. Reserve guard Rodrick Tialavea returns after suffering a season-ending injury during fall camp last year.

“The continued growth at that position is paramount to our offensive success,” Dickert said. “We want to build this thing at the line of scrimmage.

“It’s going to be one of our most competitive groups in the spring.”

Hilborn, who made starts at multiple positions as a redshirt freshman last year, “has been maybe one of our most improved guys with how he has changed his attitude and mentality,” Dickert noted. The Cougars will evaluate Hilborn at guard and tackle this spring.

The Cougars lost three O-linemen this offseason. Stephens graduated after holding down the right guard position in 2022. Left tackle Jarrett Kingston, the Cougars’ most talented lineman who sustained a season-ending injury in November, transferred to USC. Reserve guard Quinn McCarthy, who made three starts due to injuries, has elected to retire early, according to a report from Cougfan.

Another position group that will feature healthy competition at spring camp, WSU’s receiving corps has a handful of promising newcomers.

The Cougars signed three veteran transfer receivers last month in Kyle Williams (UNLV), Josh Kelly (Fresno State) and Isaiah Hamilton (San Jose State).

Williams totaled 1,568 yards and nine touchdowns in 25 games over the past three seasons. Dickert indicated that Williams is the top offseason addition to the receiver room.

“His ability, just through his tape and what we’ve seen, I’m really excited about what he can do in an outside and inside role,” Dickert said.

Kelly finished with 1,315 yards and four touchdowns in three seasons. He struggled with injuries last year but figured to help Fresno State’s offense in 2023 before he entered the portal in early December. Dickert expects Kelly to be a deep-ball threat on the outside.

Hamilton totaled 1,566 yards and 10 TDs in 39 games over the past four years. He dealt with injuries throughout the 2023 campaign but returned to form for the Spartans’ postseason game and had a career-high 137 yards in San Jose State’s loss to Eastern Michigan at the Idaho Potato Bowl.

WSU signed junior college DT Sheffield in December. The slotback totaled 1,865 yards and 21 touchdowns over the past two years for Northwest Mississippi Community College.

Carlos Hernandez, from Monrovia, California, is an early enrollee true freshman to keep an eye on, Dickert said.

“We needed to get faster, we needed to get more explosive,” Dickert said of the receiver positions. “I feel comfortable about five new wide receivers that are going to fit into (offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle’s) offense.

How we’re going to use them and what those roles are will still be determined. We’re just two weeks into seeing them move around a little bit … but I’m excited about the playmaking opportunities and stretching the field deep.”

Hampered by offensive line play and a lack of downfield separation from receivers, the Cougars couldn’t connect on many deep balls last season. Their new OC guided a Western Kentucky offense last season that led the nation in passes of 20 or more yards.

“We need to be explosive down the field,” Dickert said. “We have the quarterback (Cameron Ward) to do it. We need to shore up the offensive line to allow him to do it. We need to be exact in our reads and have guys that can stretch the field.”

WSU’s new-look receiving lineup will include a few familiar faces. Lincoln Victor is back for his senior year. Leyton Smithson, who made six starts as a true freshman last year, should make a jump. Sophomores Orion Peters and Tsion Nunnally showed flashes in reserve roles.

“Combine (the new WRs) with Leyton Smithson’s growth, I’m excited about what that wide receiver crew can be,” Dickert said, “and Lincoln Victor’s leadership and how (new WRs coach Nick Edwards) is going to elevate that room. That will be a great storyline coming out of our spring.”

WSU lost slotbacks Renard Bell and Robert Ferrel to graduation. De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie, both two-year starters at outside receiver, transferred to Oklahoma State and Cincinnati, respectively.

On offense, the Cougars’ depth chart remains unchanged at the quarterback, running back and tight end positions. On defense, WSU returns every piece from a talented edge-rushing rotation. The Cougars will look to pick up some “young, developmental” defensive tackles during the next recruiting cycle, Dickert said. WSU will likely promote Nusi Malani, David Gusta and Rashad McKenzie into prominent roles after losing three senior DTs to graduation following the 2022 season.

Safeties Jaden Hicks and Sam Lockett III are back, along with cornerback Chau Smith-Wade, who had a breakout season last year. A couple of other spots in the secondary are up for grabs.

Junior college transfer CBs Jamorri Colson and Stephen Hall will vie for reps alongside returning backups Chris Jackson and Cam Lampkin. Junior college transfer Kapena Gushiken will probably take over at nickel, a position left vacant with the graduation of Armani Marsh. Gushiken was rated a top-10 junior college CB nationally after his 2022 season at Saddleback College (California).

“That was a big part of that early signing day … bringing in a lot of experienced junior college players,” Dickert said.

WSU’s roster is “almost maxed out,” Dickert added. The Cougars might save a scholarship for a walk-on player who excels this spring, or recruit another transfer player after assessing the roster during spring camp.

“Once (coaches) see our guys and what we need, there might be another one through the junior college or late portal market (which opens in mid-April) to add after spring ball,” Dickert said. “We’re kind of strategically waiting in that area, but we’ll never pass on a good young player that we can develop. We feel very confident that’s going to be the core of our program. I’m excited we have all these players here to work with right now.”

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