PULLMAN – Djouvensky Schlenbaker could show a thing or two to reserve players around college football.
Washington State’s redshirt freshman running back has always shown promise, always been a physical back with the right tools. He just had to wait his turn.
When he arrived on campus in January 2022, he was playing behind several running backs. The Cougars had their guy, starter Nakia Watson, and Schlenbaker still found himself a couple of slots down the depth chart.
Schlenbaker was patient. Now he’s getting his shot. Watson was limited by an injury, walk-on Dylan Paine remains out with an ankle injury and, earlier in the season, backup Jaylen Jenkins was dismissed from the team for a violation of team rules. Schlenbaker made his first career start last weekend in WSU’s loss to Stanford.
“I’ve been waiting for it for a while,” Schlenbaker said, “just to go out there and honestly just keep playing football like I love, especially at the running back position. It’s always been my dream to play at a college level and starting was just, like, it just happened. So thank you to my coach for the opportunity.”
Schlenbaker didn’t break all the way out, finishing with 13 carries for 34 yards with a long rush of 9 . He might get a pass for that, a redshirt freshman getting tapped to start in Week 10, but it does raise another question: As WSU consistently struggles to run the ball, how much effort should the Cougars devote to trying?
The numbers don’t look good. Washington State ranks second to last in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game with 78.6. The Cougars average just 2.9 yards per rush. Perhaps more important, they remain the conference’s worst run-blocking team, according to Pro Football Focus, which has assigned them a grade of 47.2 in that department – last by five full grade points.
Nine games have come and gone and, with the exception of their win over an FCS foe, the Cougars have yet to establish a consistent rushing attack. Watson hasn’t shown the burst, or he hasn’t been given the blocks, or Paine went down with an injury, or some combination of all three has always limited WSU in that regard.
“We need to be able to run the ball,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said. “I sit up here every week and talk about running the ball. We gotta execute running the ball and keep people off balance.”
The Cougars just haven’t done so. They also haven’t reliably mimicked it, watching bubble screens go for 2 yards and quick outs go for only a few more. Defenses are choosing to sit back and take away their downfield passing attack, and WSU hasn’t given any opponents reason to stray from that approach.
If Washington State had a solution, it would have shown it by now, or at least that’s how the thinking goes. Dickert has implored his team to become more physical. He’s used the phrase “it’s a want-to” so many times he’s sounding like a broken record. If the Cougars have an extra physical gear , they have yet to demonstrate it, which is the concerning part for them.
“The proof is in the pudding that we’re not to where we need to be, to even be effective, to where people have to really respect it, to come down and get it,” Dickert said. “It’s been a combination of guys missing holes and missing blocks, or (identifying) things wrong.
“We gotta coach it better. I said it after the (Stanford) game. There’s a toughness aspect to playing this game and running the ball that is missing. And we physically have to get our pads down. We gotta run our feet on contact, and we gotta want to move people. So there’s a conglomerate of things.”
In theory, Washington State can at least keep defenses honest by submitting a few rushes here or there, a couple of runs to convince defenses to think about defending it. The Cougars have anything but a dependable rushing game, but they do have the bodies to do it, which should be enough to force opponents to commit a defender to play a little closer to the box.
That has only worked in theory, though. In reality, defenses that have a coverage-heavy scheme installed have stuck to it against WSU. Stanford stymied Washington State’s offense by doing just that, rushing just four and dropping the rest in coverage. Quarterback Cameron Ward didn’t have his usual menu of options downfield.
So what’s the answer for WSU? Ditch the run game entirely? Keep trying it in spots? Hope Schlenbaker can provide a spark, at least enough to force defenses out of the looks that have thwarted the Cougars’ passing game?
Perhaps the solution is to trust Ward, to count on his talent and believe he’ll make it work, even against seven- and eight-man coverage looks. There might be some teeth to that idea, but it also relies on WSU’s offensive line providing consistently clean pockets, which is not the reality in which the Cougars live.
For Washington State, the short answer is that there are no easy answers. Ahead of this weekend’s road meeting with Cal, though, the Cougars will have to decide on something.
“We just have been inept at running the football right now,” Dickert said. “It can’t be that way to have long-term success. It can’t. You can’t just be one-dimensional. The people we play are too good, and the coaches are too good at scheming it up.”