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Spring camp primer: With new coordinators and several position groups to sort out, Washington State opens 15-practice slate Tuesday

Washington State coach Jake Dickert calls plays during a scrimmage Aug. 13 at Gesa Field in Pullman. The Cougars open spring camp Tuesday.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – When spring football camp kicks off for Washington State, there will be plenty of storylines to track.

With new coordinators in the fold and several position groups to sort out, the Cougars open spring ball at 7 a.m. Tuesday. WSU will conduct 15 practices over the next month – on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays – leading up to the spring game April 22.

WSU compiled a 7-6 record last year in its first full season under coach Jake Dickert, who had to replace four assistant coaches during the offseason and lost about half of his starting lineup after the 2022 campaign.

Here’s some of the more compelling topics we’ll be keeping an eye on at spring camp:

Getting to know the first-year staffers

In early December, the Cougars lost defensive coordinator Brian Ward, who took the same job at Arizona State after one season with WSU. Less than a week before the Cougars’ LA Bowl loss to Fresno State, first-year offensive coordinator Eric Morris left the program to take the head-coaching job at North Texas.

WSU also came into the offseason in need of new coaches to lead the edge-rushing and wide receiver positions.

In January, WSU found replacements. Former Boise State defensive line coach Frank Maile joins the Cougars to mentor a proven group of edge rushers. Former Eastern Washington assistant Nick Edwards will oversee a new-look receivers group.

Jeff Schmedding, a former longtime EWU assistant who also served as DC at Boise State and Auburn, will take the reins of WSU’s defense. He’ll be asked to add wrinkles, but the Cougars won’t overhaul a 4-2-5 scheme that was installed by Dickert in 2020 and has proven effective over the past two years.

Perhaps the most intriguing addition to WSU’s staff is OC Ben Arbuckle. The 27-year-old achieved wunderkind status last year as co-OC at Western Kentucky, leading the Hilltoppers to a highly productive season in his first year as a full-time college staffer. WKU boasted the nation’s No. 2 passing offense at 352.2 yards per game.

Dickert is hoping to boost WSU’s production on deep passes. The Cougars struggled in that regard last season but they return a more-than-capable quarterback in Cameron Ward, who showed flashes of high potential last year during his first season at WSU and earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention nod.

“One of the biggest things we’ve been talking about as a staff is Cam’s maturity level and how he’s taken a great step forward,” Dickert said Monday during a news conference. “It’s huge for our team and the leadership for what’s needed at the quarterback position.”

Arbuckle and Ward will spend the spring developing their relationship as WSU introduces a fresh version of the Air Raid offense.

“What I love about coach Arbuckle is that he sets the standard of expectations,” Dickert said. “He’s out there to challenge Cam each and every day.

“What I love about Cam is that he’s going through a lot of new things … new progressions and he’s taking everything head on. He knows the vision of where we want to be and how these little changes are going to help him in his future and, more importantly, create success this season. It’s an important relationship that’s still growing. As we go through the wars of practice, that’s when you form those relationships and I’m looking forward to those guys doing that.”

The ins and outs of WSU’s revamped offensive scheme will attract attention over the next month. And it’ll be equally interesting to see how the Cougars’ offensive personnel shakes out.

Cougars address wide receiver, offensive line groups

WSU enjoys consistency in a few offensive position groups – quarterback, running back and tight end. Senior tailback Nakia Watson had a solid season in 2022 as a first-year starter, and sophomore speedster Jaylen Jenkins will presumably reprise his role as the backup.

Billy Riviere and Andre Dollar return at tight end. Riviere took the bulk of first-team reps last seaso, but Dickert indicated that Dollar might be the favorite in 2023.

“Andre Dollar has really proven (himself),” Dickert said of the second-year Coug, who dealt with injuries throughout 2022. “He’s been healthy this whole eight weeks (of winter training) and he’s developed beyond measure.”

As for the offensive line and receiving corps, the Cougars will use the spring to tease out roles.

WSU returns three starters on its O-line, which struggled last season and allowed 46 sacks – a bottom five mark in the nation. But Dickert said the group has “taken the biggest step forward in confidence” among all of the team’s positions.

“You can hear it in their communication, in their confidence,” he said. “That group, just listening to them talk, has taken the next step. Now, we need to take the next step on the field.”

Konner Gomness will reprise his role at center for the third season. Fa’alili Fa’amoe is back at right tackle for a second year. Christian Hilborn, who made starts at both guard and tackle last year, is locked in at left tackle.

“Hilborn will start right away at left tackle and we’ll see where that progresses, and where that offensive line goes,” Dickert said. “His mentality has changed. He’s taken these last eight weeks with a focus on how good he can be.”

Veteran Ma’ake Fifita, who got experience at guard and tackle last year, will stick at guard and presumably be a rotational piece this season for a position that lacked depth last year but should have a few more capable bodies in 2023.

Two newcomers will contend for starting jobs. Junior college transfer Esa Pole is set to compete with Hilborn at left tackle. Southern Utah transfer Christy Nkanu will vie for starts at one of the guard spots. Also in the mix at guard is Rodrick Tialavea, a fourth-year sophomore who missed the 2022 season due to an injury suffered in fall camp.

“The big additions of Christy and Esa, I’m just excited for what they’re going to be,” Dickert said.

WSU’s depth chart at wide receiver experienced a significant transformation from year to year. The Cougars’ top four pass-catchers from 2022 are all gone. De’Zhaun Stribling and Donovan Ollie transferred out, and slotbacks Renard Bell and Robert Ferrel graduated.

Who will be Ward’s top target? It’s up in the air. Who will start? Also unclear.

The Cougars added three experienced transfers from the Mountain West Conference in Kyle Williams (UNLV), Josh Kelly (Fresno State) and Isaiah Hamilton (San Jose State). Williams registered 1,568 yards and nine touchdowns over the past three years. Kelly tallied 1,315 yards and four touchdowns in the same span. Hamilton had 1,566 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2019-22.

Dickert shined a light on Kelly and Williams. A deep-ball threat at Fresno State, Kelly has had “an amazing eight weeks” at WSU. Dickert is impressed with Williams’ “ability to stretch the field.” Another intriguing newbie is slot receiver DT Sheffield, a juco All-American who produced big numbers over the past two seasons at Northwest Mississippi Community College.

Dickert expects one true freshman receiver to earn playing time immediately – Carlos Hernandez, an early enrollee from Monrovia High in the Los Angeles area.

“We feel like we’re more athletic at wide receiver,” Dickert said. “I think it’s going to be one of our most competitive positions. … When you don’t go into (the preseason) like, ‘Hey, this is the guy,’ and you have a bunch of guys vying for their roles in what I believe is going to be an explosive offense, I think that’s a great place to be.”

Returning WRs include senior Lincoln Victor, and sophomores Leyton Smithson, Orion Peters and Tsion Nunnally. Victor, a team captain, started five games last year but wasn’t as productive as the Cougs had hoped, managing 245 yards. Smithson, a product of Bellingham, started six games and totaled 235 yards last season. Peters and Nunnally played limited roles.

“I think (Peters) is a guy that needs to take a step forward in his game, and he has all the tools,” Dickert said. “He’s ready for a mainstay role. Tsion Nunnally, the talent is there. The consistency is what we’re working toward.”

Finding new defensive standouts

WSU must replace its three top linebackers, three veteran defensive tackles and two mainstays in the defensive backfield.

Outside linebacker Daiyan Henley is headed to the professional ranks after a superstar senior season in 2022. Middle linebackers Francisco Mauigoa and Travion Brown transferred out. Nickel Armani Marsh, a three-year standout from Spokane, and cornerback Derrick Langford Jr. graduated, and the same goes for DTs Amir Mujahid, Antonio Pule III and Christian Mejia.

The favorites to start at LB are seniors Devin Richardson and Ahmad McCullough – formerly rotational players at Texas and Maryland, respectively. They’ll now be asked to adopt more significant roles.

Other LBs to watch are veteran backup Kyle Thornton and redshirt freshman Hudson Cedarland, who was one of the prized recruits in WSU’s 2022 class. Buddah Al-Uqdah was another highly regarded recruit last year but he missed the season with an injury.

“We’re kind of sorting out what we’re going to be at linebacker,” Dickert said. “Buddah had a good winter camp. I’m excited to see if he can get into that rotation. Ahmad and Devin have done a good job transferring in. Another I’d point out is Hudson Cedarland. He put in the work, looks the part. … He’s taking strides of getting into that linebacker rotation.”

Senior Incarnate Word transfer Isaiah Paul joined the program earlier this year but recently announced he’s transferring again. That’s due to a “medical situation,” Dickert said.

WSU will trot out a younger group up front, likely led by junior Nusi Malani, who had some bright moments as a reserve last year. Freshman Rashad McKenzie was a fall-camp gem last year and sophomore David Gusta saw some action. Dickert has high hopes for true freshman early enrollee Ansel Din-Mbuh, a former prep star in Texas.

“We’re excited with his explosiveness,” Dickert said. “Combine that with Rashad and Gusta’s growth in there, and we feel we’ve gotten more athleticism and playmaking ability in the interior defensive line.”

WSU brings back safeties Jaden Hicks – a breakout player last year as a redshirt freshman – and Sam Lockett III. Chau Smith-Wade returns after emerging in 2022 as one of the Pac-12’s top coverage corners.

“I firmly believe that Jaden Hicks and Chau Smith-Wade are elite performers in our league,” Dickert said.

The other CB post will be up for grabs. Jamorri Colson and Stephen Hall come to WSU as two of the top-rated juco transfer CBs nationally, per ESPN.

Third-year Chris Jackson shifted from CB to nickel this offseason and will compete with JC transfer Kapena Gushiken – ESPN’s No. 7-ranked juco transfer CB – for the starting role at that spot.

“To find who’s going to replace Armani Marsh is going to be a big deal,” Dickert said, calling Gushiken “the fastest accelerator on our team.”

The Cougars won’t need to worry about the edge position. All-Pac-12 stalwarts Ron Stone Jr. and Brennan Jackson return for their sixth seasons.

“I’m very much into the analytics. (Stone) has played over 2,000 snaps in his career. (Jackson) is up over 1,600,” Dickert noted. “When you get to this point in spring ball, it’s about polishing.”

Behind them, the Cougars have reliable options in Quinn Roff, Andrew Edson, Raam Stevenson and Lawrence Falatea – all of whom saw their share of snaps in a deep rotation last season.