PULLMAN – At the cornerback and nickel positions, competition runs “very deep,” coach Jake Dickert noted. At wide receiver, nine players seem to be in the mix for first-team reps.
Through two days of spring camp, the battles within – and between – those positions have made for some compelling viewing.
Washington State conducted a two-hour session in light rainfall Thursday morning at Rogers Field – the team’s final spring practice without shoulder pads. There’s been limited contact this week, so it’s difficult to assess performers on the offensive and defensive lines, and in the ground game. But we can glean a little from the matchups between receivers and defensive backs.
Plenty of receiving options, but who will break out?
On Tuesday, the first day of spring ball, WSU sent out a first-team lineup of returning receivers: senior Lincoln Victor, and sophomores Leyton Smithson, Tsion Nunnally and Orion Peters.
Two days later, the Cougars went with a new-look first unit: transfers Kyle Williams, Josh Kelly, Isaiah Hamilton and DT Sheffield. True freshman Carlos Hernandez rotated in.
The Cougars lost their four top receivers after the 2022 season. Victor and Smithson are the only returners to have started games. But there’s no clear-cut star in WSU’s receiving corps – not yet, perhaps.
Dickert said he believes the team has become “more athletic” at the position from top to bottom.
He expects big things from Williams as a deep-ball threat. The junior UNLV transfer, who piled up 1,568 yards over the past three seasons, has come up with a handful of catches on downfield routes during the first two days of spring ball.
“Dynamic – I can take the top off the building,” Williams said Thursday when asked to describe his skill set. “I’m just really dynamic, explosive when the ball gets in my hands.”
Kelly, a junior Fresno State transfer who tallied 1,315 yards over the past three years, has exhibited elusiveness on short and intermediate routes. Dickert sees Hamilton as a potential target on short-field fade routes and screen plays. The senior transfer totaled 1,489 yards between 2019-22 at San Jose State.
WSU’s receiving corps may include several unfamiliar faces, but it’s not like the group lacks experience. The three Mountain West Conference transfers have appeared in a combined 88 Division I games.
“I know I’ll have a big role to play, even if I’m not in the game,” Williams said.
Sheffield has shown high-end speed at spring camp. The 5-10, 170-pounder amassed 1,865 yards and 21 touchdowns in 24 games over the past two years at Northwest Mississippi Community College.
Sheffield stretched out and reeled in a one-handed reception for about 15 yards Thursday during the first team period. He matched Williams for the team high with three catches in 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 drills.
Hernandez enrolled early after a productive career at Monrovia High in the Los Angeles area. Hernandez has been one of the most consistent receivers at spring camp .
He’s taken reps at slotback and outside receiver. Dickert thinks Hernandez could follow Smithson’s path and earn a playing role as a true freshman.
The Cougars’ new-look receiving corps will see a healthy workload in first-year offensive coordinator Ben Arbuckle’s spread offense, which Williams estimates will go to the air on 70% of its plays.
“The biggest thing I like is that we’re throwing the ball a lot,” Williams said.
The Cougars are making a point to toss it 20-plus yards downfield more frequently than they did in 2022. Williams and the 6-3 Nunnally have been targeted most often this week on long passes. The Cougars’ DBs aren’t getting beat much in 1-on-1 matchups deep.
Openings in the backfield
In damp conditions Thursday, the secondary had a more consistent session than the receivers. Leading the way was senior cornerback Cam Lampkin, who served as a backup last year after transferring in from Utah State.
Lampkin recorded a practice-high three pass deflections, breaking up two deep balls in 1-on-1 situations against taller receivers. A 5-11 Texas native, Lampkin enters the preseason as the favorite to claim a starting gig, replacing graduated Derrick Langford Jr.
Junior Chau Smith-Wade is a lock to start at the other corner position. He captured an honorable mention all-conference nod last season.
“The one guy we won’t need to see is Chau as we go throughout these scrimmages,” Dickert said.
“From the time I got here in 2020 … to now, he’s grown into a man. His leadership will take hold.”
Several other players are competing for snaps at corner – including junior college transfers Stephen Hall and Jamorri Colson, and redshirt freshman Javan Robinson.
“We want to take a look at all of those guys,” Dickert said. “Javan has jumped off the tape. The first two days, he’s been incredible.”
Robinson was one of WSU’s top-performing redshirts last year. The Florida native earned a spot on the team’s traveling roster and appeared in three games. Langford took Robinson “under his wing,” Dickert said.
“He showed him the path, the way and (Robinson) got to travel, got to see the highs and lows of last year,” the coach said. “We’ve always been extremely excited about his talent. Now, because of that progression, it doesn’t feel like he’s a freshman. … He’s out there making plays. We’ll see if a young guy can sustain that over the course of 15 practices.”
Robinson has been rotating in with the second unit, along with Colson and Hall – the No. 17 and No. 4 junior college transfer CBs in the nation, respectively, according to ESPN.
A three-man competition is underway and there’s no clear favorite at the nickel position, which was left vacant with the graduation of Armani Marsh.
Converted cornerback Chris Jackson, a reserve for the past two seasons, impressed Dickert on Thursday. Sophomore Jackson Lataimua, a special-teamer last year, has been a nickel for the past three years, so he has the leg up due to his “knowledge advantage,” Dickert said. Junior college transfer Kapena Gushiken might be the most athletic player on the team, per Dickert. He ran a 10-yard split in 1.42 seconds – a professional-level mark.
“Kapena, as we go, will get more and more comfortable,” Dickert said. “He’s as athletic as they come.”
Players of the day
Dickert’s daily awards went to veteran center Konner Gomness and junior defensive tackle Nusi Malani.
A third-year starter, Gomness is the undisputed leader of an O-line group that will be a position to keep an eye on this preseason. The Cougars underperformed up front last year, but return three starters and hope to bring improved depth into 2023.
“Just really proud of his leadership,” Dickert said. “When you watch Konner Gomness, the way he finished every play, running 20 yards down the field and coming back to snap the ball, it was incredible.”
Malani registered two sacks last year in his first season at WSU after transferring in from Virginia. He is the most experienced returner for a DT position that lost three veterans to graduation in Amir Mujahid, Antonio Pule III and Christian Mejia.
“Ever since they left, there was a big hole for a little bit, but I feel like (junior Ty Garay-Harris) and I had to rise as the old people in the group,” Malani said, “just working day in and day out, trying to get the youngins right.
“(Dickert) just expects me to be the first one to show the young’uns how it’s supposed to be done.”
Malani set a positive example Thursday.
“He’s an energy-giver to everybody,” Dickert said. “He’s just bought in. He wants his teammates to have so much success, and that’s fun to watch.”