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‘There’s so much competition happening’: Washington State launches into spring camp

Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward (1) warms up before the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl on Dec. 17 at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – After wrapping up Day One of spring camp, Washington State coach Jake Dickert acknowledged new challenges while outlining his goals for the next month.

During these 15 practices, the Cougars will be staging numerous position battles.

“This is the most competition I’ve probably ever had at positions going into a season on any team I’ve been a part of,” Dickert said. “Offensive line, receivers, tight ends, defensive tackles – who’s going to be the linebackers, the nickel, the (second) cornerback? There’s so much competition happening.”

Many of the players vying for roles are new to the program. “This is not a veteran team,” Dickert said, so he must take great care in creating practice routines that will “establish habits” within his reworked roster and ensure that the “little details” are ironed out.

“I’ve never detailed (a practice schedule) this much, either,” he said. “I want this to flow. … We know, if we let the little details slip, we’re not going to get the results we need for 12 Saturdays in the fall. That’s the focus, No. 1 – standards over everything.”

On Tuesday, WSU took an initial step toward forming its 2023 team, training for just over two hours on a bitter morning at Rogers Field.

A few newcomers introduced themselves with standout plays during the padless session.

Senior receiver Kyle Williams, a UNLV transfer, loped down the sideline and hauled in a long ball from backup quarterback John Mateer for a big gain in the day’s first team period. Josh Kelly, a transfer receiver from Fresno State, shook off defenders on intermediate routes and made a handful of impressive catches. True freshman receiver Carlos Hernandez contorted his body as he fell and came up with a 30-yard reception down the middle of the field during the final team period.

“Kyle Williams, I think you saw a streak down the sideline,” Dickert said. “Kyle is a vertical, linear guy. … I think we’ve gotten more athletic out there (at the receiver positions). Josh Kelly gives you that intermediate route-runner that can still take the top off.”

The wide receivers will be a group to watch throughout spring camp. WSU lost its top four receivers after the 2022 season and restocked the position with three Mountain West Conference transfers in Williams, Kelly and former San Jose State standout Isaiah Hamilton, who could become a target on fade routes and screens from the slot position, Dickert noted.

Starting quarterback Cameron Ward spoke highly of Kelly as a target on outside routes, and also shined a light on Williams and junior college transfer DT Sheffield, who exhibited speed from the slot position.

“They’ve been able to pick up this offense within the first couple of weeks (when) they got here in January,” Ward said of the new wideouts. WSU’s second-year QB and the Cougars’ first-year receivers spent ample time training together in 7-on-7 drills this offseason.

“Just getting them up to speed, getting them into the fast-paced style of offense,” Ward said.

The Cougars think Hernandez has the potential to contend for playing time immediately.

“He was out here making plays. He’s everything as advertised for a young kid, and I’m excited for his growth,” Dickert said, naming the Southern California native one of two players of the day. “He’s done everything right since he’s been here.

“There’s a lot of guys out there competing their tails off. We’re excited about where that group can go, but really excited about the competitive nature that our team needs and has right now.”

None of the newcomer receivers took the field with WSU’s first unit during team drills. Instead, the Cougars sent out returners Leyton Smithson, Tsion Nunnally, Lincoln Victor and Orion Peters.

Smithson started six games last season and had some bright moments as a true freshman. Victor, a team captain, started five games but managed just 245 yards. Nunnally and Peters served in reserve roles. A 6-foot-3, 220-pound sophomore, Nunnally had a nice effort Tuesday, snagging a couple of deep passes.

“We need that big-body ‘X’ receiver, that red-zone dominating guy, and I think he can be that,” Dickert said.

WSU’s secondary posted its share of highlights, recording two interceptions and plenty of pass deflections. Newcomer cornerback Jamorri Colson intercepted Mateer and sophomore CB Javan Robinson picked off Ward.

Junior cornerback Chau Smith-Wade earned a player of the day nod from Dickert.

“He was just fantastic in his leadership and preparation,” Dickert said, noting that Smith-Wade has packed on 12 pounds of muscle since Jan. 1 and is up to 180 pounds.

More notes/observations from Day 1 of spring camp

Initial depth chart

Smith-Wade and Cam Lampkin, a second-teamer last season, started at the CB positions. Rotating in were sophomore Javan Robinson, and junior college transfers Colson and Stephen Hall.

Sophomore Jackson Lataimua, a special-teamer last year, started off with the first team at nickel. Converted CB Chris Jackson and junior college transfer Kapena Gushiken alternated in.

Texas transfer Devin Richardson lined up with the first unit at middle linebacker.

“Guys to look out for, definitely Devin Richardson,” edge rusher Brennan Jackson said of his new roommate. “It’s been cool living with him and getting his perspective on things, coming from a big school like that. … He says the energy here is so electric and different.”

Kyle Thornton, a veteran backup, took the field first at outside linebacker. Maryland transfer Ahmad McCullough and true sophomore Hudson Cedarland were backups.

There’s work to do on the offensive line and at defensive tackle, but we’ll dive deeper into those positions once the pads come on Saturday.

Ward’s development

Attributes Ward highlighted for improvement during the offseason – leadership, decision-making and footwork.

“There’s a lot of new guys on offense, a lot of new wide receivers, a lot of young guys working in. There’s going to be some mistakes, so how is (Ward) going to raise the level of everyone around him?” Dickert said. “That’s expectation No. 1.”

Ward earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention nod last year in his first FBS season after throwing for 3,231 yards and 23 touchdowns with nine interceptions. Going into his junior year, Ward feels he can become more poised in the pocket and avoid throwing off unbalanced footing.

“Just having a consistent drop (step),” Ward said. “Last year, I was more of a backpedaler.

“Getting through reads quicker, refining my footwork – that’s something I’ve seen a difference in since Jan. 1.”

Ward shouldered some of the blame for WSU’s sack trouble last season.

“It was on me, whether it’s stepping up in the pocket or getting out too early,” he said. “That’s one of the biggest things I want to work on this spring.”

Dickert said Ward has made progress in polishing his passing motion.

“The biggest thing is his feet and arm are in sync,” Dickert said. “That’s going to improve accuracy and improve arm speed in his deep passing. We know we want to take the ball down the field. … Any time you can have your feet and arm in sync and you add that talent to it, you’re going to have better accuracy and those deep-ball throws are there.”

Ward has soaked in advice from new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Ben Arbuckle, who led Western Kentucky to a prolific passing season in 2022.

“He’s helping me in my progressions as I learn the new concepts of the offense, helping me refine my footwork, being more of a stable quarterback and taking what the defense gives me,” Ward said.

Like the Cougars’ offense in 2022, Arbuckle’s system features Air Raid passing schemes. Already familiar with this style of offense, Ward will be asked to function as a coach on the field and make adjustments on the fly. Asked about differences between this offense and the last one, Ward said there is new terminology and more intermediate passing plays.

“There are a lot of the same concepts,” he said.

Ward completed around 15 of 25 passes during team drills on the first day of spring camp.

‘Consistency is key’

The Cougars replaced both of their coordinators this offseason, but won’t be overhauling their systems.

“It’s about taking a step forward, not restarting,” Dickert said, adding that he expects 80% of the schemes to remain the same from last season.

“But they gotta put their stamp on it. It’s their offense, it’s their defense, but it’s part of us as a whole,” he added.

Arbuckle’s offense includes more of a deep-passing threat than the previous system, coordinated for one year by Eric Morris – now the head coach at North Texas. WSU’s offense this season will have the ability to both air it out, and ground and pound.

“At the end of the day, there’s a lot of similarities,” Dickert said. “I’m excited about being able to just focus a lot more on the details of technique.”

First-year defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding – the former DC at Eastern Washington, Boise State and, most recently, Auburn – was hired in January to take the reins of a defensive system installed by Dickert in 2020. Schmedding will add minor tweaks to WSU’s defense, which impressed in each of the past two seasons.

“Very similar,” Jackson said of the defensive philosophies of Schmedding and Dickert. “The biggest thing is relentless pursuit, finishing to the ball. … The terminology is basically the same.”

Dickert and Schmedding both place extra emphasis on forcing turnovers. WSU finished top five nationally in turnovers gained in 2021 and came up with 21 takeaways last year – tying for 37th nationally.

“Teams that have plus-three in their turnover margin win 93% of games,” Jackson said. “So, we’re emphasizing that every day in practice. Making sure we’re constantly thinking about the ball in every situation will be huge. We just want to be the top spot, the top defense in the Pac-12. It’s a lofty goal, but I think we have the guys here – actually, I know we have the guys here that can make that happen.”